Ouch: 75% of people will experience back pain at some point in their lives. But when back pain strikes, you don’t have to take it lying down. In fact, you shouldn’t. New research from Australian investigators shows that the old standby for back pain relief—rest and an over-the-counter pain reliever—should be shelved. The new remedy? Get (or keep) moving.
“If a person is in acute back pain, there’s this idea that stillness is the best thing for you to do,” says Katy Bowman, MS, a biomechanist, director of The Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura, California, and, author of Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement (Propriometrics Press, 2014).
While sitting still for 4 to 5 days may bring relief, Bowman says that it ends up creating a cycle of weakness.
“Once you stop moving, what bothers you may not hurt any longer, but it’s not necessarily getting stronger or getting better or healing. You’re just not putting any pressure on the area, so you’re not feeling it.”
For instance, if you sprain your ankle and you put your foot up to rest, it’s going to feel better because you’ve stopped loading it. The same happens with your back.
“The back is a complex arrangement of muscles, ligaments, joints, and other structures which must balance the back’s dual purposes—mobility of the trunk as the essence of function, and stability to enhance movement of the arms and the legs,” says Chris A. Sebelski, PT, DPT, associate professor of physical therapy and athletic training at Saint Louis University in St. Louis. “The addition of movement to any rehabilitation program for the back is essential in order to insure that all aspects of this complex arrangement are being addressed.”
The take-away: healing is dependent on movement. When you are more sedentary, so is the movement of fluids throughout your body, explains Bowman. So while you don’t “have to keep exercising or doing the activity that brought about the injury, but rather engage in gentle movements to keep your body active. This movement helps support that of the lymphatic system and the circulation of blood. When you lie still, those systems are sluggish.”
6 Healthy Back Exercises and Tips
The best home exercise program is one created just for you by a health care professional, Sebelski says. An individualized program will allow specific exercises to be directed at the regions of the body that need it most. But, for general back pain, there are some smart moves you can do to ensure you feel better faster. In fact, Sebelski recommends simply getting up to walk and stretch throughout your day can relieve back pain. Here are six ways to keep moving:
- Light Walking: As long as you’re not on doctor-prescribed bed rest, you should be able to walk slowly for short periods of time. Gentle, light walking will improve circulation and help strengthen and stretch your muscles. If you work at a desk, frequent walks around your place of employment every 20-30 minutes will insure that you are getting up a few times each hour—advice that applies even if you aren’t experiencing back pain.
- Simple Stretches: Sebelski recommends the following simple stretches, which can be done throughout the day. Sit with a very upright posture at the edge of your chair and extend your leg out in front of you by sliding your foot along the floor. Keep your body upright and the knee of the leg you are stretching straight. Flex the foot, keeping the heel on the floor, and point the toes up toward the ceiling. Hold for 20-30 seconds, and then switch sides. This stretches the hamstring. “The hamstrings connect to the pelvis which has numerous structures which connect it to the low back,” says Sebelski. “Keeping the hamstrings flexible allows you to avoid undue forces on the back.”
Another do-anywhere move: Stretch your calf by stepping on a book with the balls of your feet and hang your heels over the edge of the book. This can also be done on a curb or a step.
- Gentle Twist: Twisting is a Catch-22 for back pain, say Bowman. While regular twisting will keep the spine flexible, and the back “happy,” it may too much when you’re experiencing back pain. A less intense twist would be just to sit in a chair with your knees squared forward and pretend that you’re backing up in a car—shift your “seat” to one side and then look over the other shoulder. Repeat on opposite side. “It’s a lesser load to the spine, and less intense than lying on the floor and bringing your leg across your body,” says Bowman. “Unless you’ve been told not to drive, then you’re probably safe to still do a ‘backing up’ seated twist. It’s something that you need to do when behind the wheel.”
- Self-Massage: If you’re in need of an immediate fix for stiff back muscles, grab a tennis ball. Stand facing away from a wall, place the ball behind your back and lean into it. There are all sorts of mobilizing self-massage you can do—just avoid the area that is bothering you, and focus on the surrounding areas, recommends Bowman. For instance, if you’re experiencing lower back tension, put the tennis ball against your butt muscles and lean against the wall, moving like a cat scratching itself against a wall.
- Breathe: Not only is deep breathing during relaxation exercises very effective for improving overall health, but focused breathing can also improve back pain, says Sebelski. What’s more, those deep abdominal muscles, the transversus abdominis, which provide stability for the back muscles, also play a key role in respiratory function. Sebelski suggests visualizing the breath expanding the abdomen or massaging the spine, even if you’re in a seated position. “Deep breathing really activates the key muscles in your trunk.”
- Stay Calm: In light of an injury, don’t panic, urges Bowman. “Just breathe, it’s going to be okay. Close your eyes and try to release any tension from your head to your toes. Work on taking deep breaths and try to relax everything,” she says. “You will find you are not as injured or tense as you initially thought. The protective mechanism of the body is that everything tenses and spasms to protect you from the things you were about to do—which saves you, and is amazing—but then because you are worried and tense, the body secretes stress hormones, keeping everything tenser longer.” So just relax.
Chris A. Sebelski, PT, DPT associate professor of physical therapy and athletic training at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, MO, reviewed this article.
Katy Bowman. Phone interview with author. November 13, 2014.
Chris A. Sebelski. Email message. November 19, 2014.
“Rethinking Tylenol and Rest: Movement Is Key to Keep Back Pain at Bay, Physical Therapist Says.” St. Louis University Medical Center/ScienceDaily. October 28, 2014.
Williams, Christopher M., Christopher G. Maher, Jane Latimer, Andrew J. McLachlan, Mark J. Hancock, Richard O. Day, Chung-Wei Christine Lin. “Efficacy of Paracetamol for Acute Low-Back Pain: A Double-Blind, Randomised Controlled Trial.” The Lancet 384(9954): 1586-1596. 1 November 2014. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60805-9