Has back pain ever taken you down? Unable to participate in your favorite activities, missing special events, and even missing work? If so, you are not alone! But what could you have done to help prevent this from happening in the first place? If this hasn’t happened to you, what should you be doing to keep you feeling healthy & strong?
Before we break down the 5 top exercises you can do to avoid lower back pain, it’s important to understand the structure of the spine, the common causes of lower back pain, and what puts you at risk of lower back pain.
The anatomy of the spine
The spine is made up of 33 individual pieces of bone called vertebrae that interlock to form the spinal column. In between each vertebra is a cushion called a disc; providing space and padding.
The spine is broken up into three sections; cervical, thoracic, lumbar. The cervical spine, or the neck, serves to support the weight of your head. Seven vertebrae make up the cervical spine and are numbered C1 thru C7. The thoracic spine is more of your mid-back, and is made up of 12 vertebrae, numbered T1 to T12. It’s purpose is to hold the rib cage and protect the heart. The final section of the spine is referred to as the lumbar spine, your lower back. It is made up of 5 vertebrae numbered L1 to L5. It helps carry the weight of your body.
What causes back pain?
Lower back pain can be the result of a number of different things. From tight muscles to a more traumatic incident to poor mechanics, the causes of low back pain differ from individual to individual. Here are some of the more common reasons people suffer from low back pain.
Herniated discs - Sometimes referred to as a slipped or ruptured disc, a herniated disc is when the jelly-like substance within the disc spills out through a tear of the outer membrane. Herniated discs are most common within the lumbar spine and may cause numbness, tingling, weakness, and even pain into the legs.
Sciatica - The longest nerve in the body is called the sciatic nerve and it runs from your lumbar spine down the back of your legs into your feet. When pressure is applied to the nerve or the nerve is injured, this results in what is referred to as sciatica. Typical symptoms of sciatica include pain going down one leg that worsens as you sit, cough, or sneeze.
Stenosis - Stenosis is when the spaces between your spine begin to narrow and put pressure on the nerves throughout the spine. Some individuals may show no signs or symptoms of stenosis while others experience symptoms similar to sciatica. Stenosis most commonly occurs in the lumbar and cervical spine.
Disc degeneration - As we age, disc degeneration may occur. As the discs become worn, they provide less protection between the vertebrae resulting in pain.
Spondylolisthesis - Sometimes a stress fracture occurs on both sides of the pedicles causing a pars defect. When this occurs, the vertebral body can slide forward causing a spondylolisthesis. This most commonly occurs in the lumbar spine. There are several different types of spondylolisthesis including: congenital, isthmic, degenerative, traumatic, pathological, and post-surgical. Common symptoms include muscles spasms of the hamstring and the feeling of a muscle strain across the lower back.
Scoliosis - Most common in children & teens, scoliosis refers to a coronal plane curvature of the spine. Cases range from mild to severe.
Trauma - If an individual suffers a trauma such as a car accident, sports injury, fall, etc., it may result in damage to the spine or spinal cord resulting in back pain.
Osteoporosis - Osteoporosis effects millions of Americans. It is a bone disease that leads the bone to become porous, resulting in a more fragile (less dense) bone. As the bone becomes less dense, the risk of fracture greatly increases. Oftentimes, there are no signs or symptoms of osteoporosis until a fracture occurs.
Radiculopathy - When a nerve root of the spinal column is pinched at any section of the spine, it is referred to as radiculopathy. Radiculopathy is the common result of stenosis, herniation, bone spurs, etc. As an example, radiculopathy of the lumbar spine may be referred to as sciatica if the nerve is involved.
What puts you at risk for lower back pain?
Beyond the above conditions, these are some of the factors that put you at risk for developing lower back pain.
Fitness level - A more fit individual who is regularly exercising is less likely to experience back pain than an individual who is stagnant.
Age - As mentioned above, some back conditions are caused by the aging process. Also, as we age, the body starts to break down resulting in pain & injury.
Occupation - Our occupations differ from person to person. Some people sit for hours on end, others lift heavy objects, and others are on their feet most of the day. Each of these events cause different stresses on the body and spine.
Weight gain - When we gain weight, we put more stress specifically on the lumbar spine.
How exercises can help your back
Exercise is a must to keep your body healthy! Your internal organs, muscles, bones, and even your emotional health benefit from exercise. Unfortunately, some of us are limited in the exercises we can do because of injury or other health condition. That's where our physical therapists come in!
As we exercise, our discs can actually swell with water and, if healthy, squeeze it out. This process allows the disc to absorb the nutrients it needs. It is in this same process that the body naturally reduces swelling surround injured discs. So, when we don’t exercise, swelling can actually increase and the discs can become malnourished leading to pain.
Additionally, when we are inactive, the connective fibers of our ligaments and tendons become inflexible resulting in increased stiffness. Mobility prevents the connective fibers from tearing under stress - preventing injury & pain.
Lastly, if you think about the spine, your abdominals sit directly in front. The abdominal muscles work together with the muscles of the back to provide support, prevent injury, and reduce pain. You may hear your trainer and teacher tell you that the muscles of the back and abdominals are like a corset; internally, they support your spine, facet joints, and ligaments. When everything is working in unison, you can prevent, reduce, or relieve pain.
Exercises for lower back pain
It is important to consult with your physician or physical therapist before starting any exercises or training regime. For general lower back pain, our physical therapist Jaclyn Bissani, PT, DPT recommends the following exercises:
Please note, if any of the following stretches or exercises cause pain or discomfort, stop immediately and consult with a medical professional.
If you are not getting relief from your back pain, we would love to help. Contact our office at (949) 713-6445 so we can guide you in the right direction towards pain-free living.