Back On Track

By Chandra Orr

May 15, 2009 5 min read

BACK ON TRACK

Swim, walk and strengthen your core to keep back pain at bay

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

Back pain is one of the most common health complaints in the U.S. In fact, as many as 80 percent of all adults experience lower-back pains at some point in their lives, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

How do you treat the hurt? Get moving, and keep moving.

"Muscle weakness contributes to up to 80 percent of the pain experienced by chronic pain patients, so the worst thing you can do when your back hurts is lie in bed for a week," said pain management specialist Dr. Ruth Anderson of Desert Pain Specialists in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

"For acute pain, I recommend ice and no more than one to two days of rest," Anderson said. "After that, get moving. Your body heals itself through exercise. Even walking around the house is better than lying in bed."

The right exercise, plus a little help from anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin or Motrin, can mend most back pain in three months or less, according to Dr. Lee Hunter Riley, III, and Dr. Ziya Gokaslan, Johns Hopkins University surgeons and authors of "The Back Book" ($17, The Johns Hopkins University Press).

"Exercise is crucial," Gokaslan said. "Without a doubt, exercise is the most helpful way to alleviate chronic back pain. Assuming you have been to a doctor and been tested and screened for any serious conditions, our top advice is to get moving."

FIND YOUR CORE

Core strengthening has become a bit of a buzzword, and for good reason. A strong core -- or strong back and abdominal muscles -- means a healthy spine. It's the best bet for alleviating and preventing pain.

"Your core provides support for your spine," Anderson explained. "Otherwise, your spine is just a bunch of bones sitting on top of each other grinding away under the stress of every movement and the force of gravity. Your core muscles are there to absorb that stress and protect your spine."

Core-strengthening exercises are designed to tone back muscles and strengthen the abdomen to help prevent injury and pain, but a few simple sit-ups won't cut it. You must go deeper, engaging all four sets of abdominal muscles -- the ones you feel contracting when you cough.

Take heed, though: The exercises only work when done correctly. Done incorrectly, they can do more harm than good. In other words, don't try this at home.

Enroll in a class to learn the proper techniques for working those deep muscle groups. The class will likely include simple exercises like abdominal crunches, abdominal presses, bridges, quadrupeds and rotations.

For a low-impact, big-results workout, look for classes that incorporate oversized, inflatable exercise balls, which aid in coordination and balance while toning the key muscle groups.

EASE INTO IT

If the pain prevents you from starting a core-strengthening routine right away, ease into it. Start with low-impact aerobic activities like swimming, walking and biking to improve flexibility and balance and help keep your heart healthy.

"Even daily walking, done right, can help control lower-back pain by keeping your core muscles strong," Anderson said.

Once you've worked out all the kinks, step it up with stretching exercises like Pilates and yoga, which promote flexibility while conditioning core muscles for a more intense workout.

WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR

Not all back pain stems from weak muscles. "If your pain continues or becomes acute, it's time to see a doctor to figure out why the pain is not getting better," Riley said.

See a doctor if your back pain develops following an injury or infection, if you experience sharp pain, numbness or tingling or if you have a history of cancer or urinary problems. Likewise, if you suffer from pain that radiates down your legs or the pain is accompanied by incontinence, make an appointment with your primary physician. Your doctor may suggest surgery, but be wary.

"Avoid back surgery if you can, and get a second or even third opinion if your doctor recommends it," Gokaslan said. "It sounds odd coming from two spinal surgeons, but what most people don't understand is that many forms of chronic back pain can be managed very well without surgery."

Instead, ask your doctor about physical therapy or body-based therapies like chiropractic treatments, massage, acupressure and acupuncture, which can help ease symptoms, according to Gokaslan and Riley.

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