Exercise helps prevent low back pain, study says

February 22, 2016 Providence Health Team

If you struggle with low back pain, don’t waste money investing in belts, fancy orthopedic inserts or other gadgets to ease the pain. The best remedy is exercise.

A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine concludes that exercise, whether core strengthening, aerobic exercise or stretching, is the key to preventing low back pain. According to the study, exercise alone or in combination with education is effective, while “education alone, back belts and shoe insoles do not appear to prevent lower back pain.”

Ryan Winning, physical therapist supervisor at Providence Centralia Physical Therapy, is glad to see the new study getting attention. “It aligns with the message we give in therapy sessions,” he says. Winning and his colleagues develop exercise plans to help their patients ease or prevent low back pain. It can be difficult, however, to convince them to stick to with the exercise plans. “People like quick-fixes,” he says.

The past two decades have seen significant changes in the way physical therapists treat back pain. Passive treatments, such as ultrasound, heat or traction, used to be common.

Since Winning started working in the field nearly 20 years ago, he’s seen a shift from passive treatments to an exercise and evidence-based approach. Now patients are more likely to receive a plan to strengthen their core muscles or stretch their hamstrings.

Demographics of back pain

According to a Global Burden of Disease study, low back pain is one of the “most burdensome health problems worldwide.” In fact, it’s estimated that 12 percent of the world’s population suffers from back pain. That number will increase as the population ages in coming years.

“Nearly two-thirds of the patients that come to us with back pain are middle-aged, 40 to 60 years old,” says Winning. These patients don’t have a consistent history of exercising or, when they are active, it’s too much in a short span of time.

“We get a lot of weekend warriors,” he says. “People exert themselves over the weekend, and the body is strained.” That often leads to low back pain.

But so does too much rest. Inactivity does not keep the back healthy.

Winning says a lot of what he and his colleagues do is educate and instruct patients on how to prevent injury through movement and home exercise plans. Changing the mindset of their patients is the first place they start. “We’re trying to motivate people to make healthy lifestyle changes. It’s a huge part of what we do,” says Winning.

Here are Winning’s top three recommendations for preventing low back pain:

  1. Stop smoking. (It dries out the jelly-like disks that act as the spine's shock absorbers.)
  2. Start a walking routine.
  3. Do stretching and strengthening exercises.

If you have lower back pain and need help, contact your Providence provider or find one in your region here.

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