Life’s certainties, Ben Franklin quipped, are death and taxes. Perhaps among the lucky few, he left one out: lower back pain. “About eighty percent of adults will experience lower back pain,” observes Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, a world renown endoscopic spine surgeon and president of New York/New Jersey-based Atlantic Spine Center, “which is why it’s so important that we can find relief.”
The statistics are staggering: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25 percent of adults have suffered from lower back pain in the last three months. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that it’s the number one reason for job-related disability. And its toll has risen: In 1990 lower back pain came in sixth on a national ranking of burdensome health problems. Twenty years later it had jumped to third.
“When we examine the problem of lower back pain,” notes Dr. Liu, “we see it exacerbated by another unfortunate reality: once a person experiences an episode, there’s a good chance it will happen again.”
But it’s not all gloom and doom – as long as patients stay active. “Patients may think they should rest,” Dr. Liu observes, “but, typically, that’s the worst thing to do. Activity is usually the best medicine for lower back pain, most of which is not caused by a condition that requires medical treatment.”
The lower back’s five moveable vertebrae are the spine’s largest. And they have a big job: to support the upper body, as well as provide flexibility for turning, twisting, and bending.
Most lower back pain is brought on by any number of reasons: sprains, age, sitting, stress. “And the list goes on,” Dr. Liu says, adding that in many cases the culprit can’t be identified.
But we can take action to help our lower backs. Especially promising, notes Dr. Liu, is research showing that certain aerobic activity may actually strengthen key parts of the spine, offering the possibility of preventing lower back pain from happening in the first place.
When it comes to aerobic exercise and protecting our spines, Dr. Liu suggests the following five tips on how aerobic exercise can help your lower back:
1. Walking (and running) the right way can keep compacted discs at bay: Walking and running – far from hurting your spine – may strengthen the discs that cushion our vertebrae. Dr. Liu notes that this is really exciting, because over time these discs break down – a major cause of lower back pain. There appears to be a sweet spot: a rapid walk or slow jog, ranging from four miles an hour to five and a half miles an hour.
2. Other aerobic exercise is good, too: “It’s not only walking and jogging,” observes Dr. Liu. “Other forms of aerobic activity, like cycling or swimming, can support the back’s muscle strength and flexibility. Recent research shows that exercise significantly reduces the risk of lower back pain. Of course, we want to stay away from high-impact movement – like jumping – or intense lifting, twisting or bending that might aggravate injury.”
3. The gain? Less pain: “Aerobic activity can improve pain-reducing endorphins and mood,” explains Dr. Liu. “Since lower back pain is usually temporary, finding healthy approaches to pain is vital, especially given the risks of pain management drugs.”
4. Aerobic activity can prevent a “spiral of decline”: “With less pain and improved mood, people are more likely to be active,” notes Dr. Liu, “which is extremely important. Otherwise, lower back pain can have a corrosive cumulative effect, with inactivity triggering further episodes.”
5. A sustainable approach is important: “Long-term data underscores the need for exercise to be part of one’s overall lifestyle,” states Dr. Liu. “We need to understand how exercise can help and to create a realistic plan. In fact, education alongside exercise offers the greatest level of protection.”
About the Author: Dr. Liu emphasizes that your doctor can help you design a safe approach. “Ongoing research,” he observes, “is revealing new ways that aerobic exercise can keep our backs healthy.” Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery at Atlantic Spine Center.