Lower back pain can impact every part of your life. But you don’t have take it lying down, writes Caitlin Reid.
Picture sitting at your desk, working away, and suddenly feeling a dull ache in your lower back. What do you do? If you’re like the rest of us, you’ll probably keep working, and just ignore it. Or if it gets worse, you might get up for a quick stretch – hoping that will fix it.
Whatever you do, one thing’s for sure: at some stage in your life, you’ll probably experience it. Lower back pain affects 80–90% of Australians at least occasionally, with 30% of us in pain at any one time. Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill to cure it – which is why exercising for a strong, healthy back is a must for everyone.
What causes the pain?
Because there are so many things that can be the culprit of lower back pain, it’s not always easy to diagnose the cause. However, most cases tend to be triggered by a combination of overuse, muscle strain and injury to ligaments, discs and muscles.
Sitting for prolonged periods of time can cause lower back pain, too. When you sit at your desk, for example, your pelvis rotates backwards, flattening your normally curved lumbar spine and increasing the load through your vertebrae. And as you hunch forward towards the computer screen, muscles deep in your back shrink, while your abdominal muscles shorten and your outer back muscles overstretch and weaken.
No wonder many experts believe that spending long stretches of time sitting at a desk can have a big impact on the spine’s normal structure and the development of lower back pain. Ouch!
How to get pain relief
When you have an aching back, bed rest can sound like the most attractive option, but actually research has shown this to be strongly associated with more days off work, a higher intensity of pain and a stronger likelihood of disability. In fact, the best way to relieve back pain is just the opposite of bed rest: exercise!
But a healthy lower back requires more than strong back muscles – you need strong muscles in your torso and pelvis too. These are called the ‘core’ muscles. When you have good core strength, the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen (both outer and inner) work together in harmony, helping to protect and stabilise the spine.
There are two main types of activities for treating lower back pain: motor control exercises (which aim to improve the control and coordination of torso muscles) and graded exercises (which gradually increase your tolerance for the activity).
For both types of activities, the best exercises are those that work several core muscle groups at the same time, as this resembles how your body moves during day-to-day activities and takes some of the work off the spine. For benefits you will notice, try performing the following exercises.
How to reduce back pain
Body position is vital during core strengthening exercises, particularly if you already suffer from back pain, but beginners should really see an accredited exercise physiologist to ensure they have the right technique. When you’re performing core exercises, it’s important to focus on quality of the movement rather than quantity, so don’t worry if you can’t reach the number of repetitions recommended below. When starting out, do each exercise slowly and learn how to perform each exercise properly, with the correct technique. Over time you will be able to gradually build up to a greater number of repetitions. When your muscles get tired, stop and rest or change exercises – it’s perfectly okay to take a break when you need one. Lastly, make sure you breathe steadily and slowly during all exercises.
Suck your belly button into your spine, so that your abdomen is ‘hollow’ underneath your rib cage. Hold for one minute, then release. Repeat five times.
Curl-ups on Swiss ball
Sit on the midpoint of the ball, then slowly walk your feet out, away from the ball, until your lower back is resting on the ball. Keep your knees at a 90-degree angle. Place both arms across the chest. Brace by tensing your muscles (as if you were about to be punched in the stomach) and raise your trunk off the ball, stopping at 45 degrees. Hold for three seconds before lowering. Repeat two sets of 15.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your hands resting just below your hips. Clench your buttocks, before lifting them slightly off the floor. Hold for 15 seconds before returning back to the floor. Repeat 12 times.
Alternate arm and leg raises
Lie on your stomach with your arms and legs outstretched. While looking at the ground, slowly lift your right leg and left arm towards the ceiling. Hold for five seconds at a comfortable height, before lowering your limbs back to the ground. Repeat using your opposite side. Complete two sets of 12 on each side.
Benefits of back and ab exercises
Reduce the likelihood and severity of back pain.
Protect against injury by responding efficiently to stresses.
Improve seated and standing posture.
Help recovery from a back problem or after spine surgery.