Research continues to show that the best “cure” for back pain is exercise. But what do you do when exercise hurts your back instead of helping it?
This is one of the most common frustrations I hear from clients. Doctors examine their backs and take X-rays. He or she only sees conditions such as arthritis or degenerative disc disease. There is no point in surgery – so the advice is to exercise – especially to strengthen the core muscles. But when it doesn’t work, they become overwhelmed.
So why should exercise hurt your back when research overwhelmingly shows it should help?
Here are 5 reasons why your exercise routine may be hurting your back instead of helping it:
1. This is the wrong way to exercise
While this study isn’t wrong about exercise and back pain, it doesn’t always reveal the specifics of the type of exercise being performed. For example, walking is considered one of the best activities for people with back pain, and for most people it helps a lot.
But I’ve also had clients where just walking to the mailbox at the end of the driveway makes it worse. What this study is really saying is that movement—not necessarily “exercise”—has real benefits for back pain—even acute back pain.
But you need to make sure this is the right type of exercise for your specific type of back pain. If you do the wrong types of exercises or movements, you’ll feel worse, which is one of the reasons why exercise can sometimes hurt your back rather than help.
2. Stability training is introduced too early
Stability training is an important part of back pain recovery – but I often find it’s introduced too early. Mobility is always your first consideration. If your spine isn’t fully mobile, there’s a reason for it. Before you begin to stabilize or strengthen your spine, you want to make sure you are fully exploring and allowing your spine to move the way it should.
Sometimes I’ll settle down first, but that’s rare. I often see people with chronic back pain suffering from mobility issues that are ignored. When your spine doesn’t move well, you may develop compensatory movement patterns that cause irritation to structures in and around your spine. You need to figure this out before doing stability exercises for your core and spine.
3. You’re not activating your core
Knowing how to properly activate your core is not the same as having good core strength. You can have the strongest abs in the world, but your six-pack is useless if you don’t use them when they do their job. When exercising, it’s crucial to know how to properly activate your core, especially if you have back pain.
If you don’t activate your core properly when lifting weights or performing complex movements that require good coordination, you’re more likely to get injured. The ability to properly activate the core is developed through motor control training. We’re here to teach your brain how to recognize and activate specific muscles during specific activities so that they eventually become habits.
Pilates (if done correctly and with a trained instructor) is an exercise that works well for achieving this. If you experience constant back pain every time you exercise or try to strengthen your core, you may lack the ability to activate it at critical moments.
4. Your breathing is not normal
Breathing incorrectly—or not breathing at all—can seriously impact the effectiveness of your exercise routine and hinder your ability to perform exercises correctly. As mentioned before, it is crucial to know how to activate your core when exercising, and in order to activate your core properly, you must be able to breathe correctly.
Your deep core is made up of four parts: your deep abdominals, your deep back muscles, your pelvic floor, and your diaphragm. Your diaphragm controls your breathing. Let’s say you hold your breath while exercising. When this happens, it means your diaphragm is not expanding or contracting the way your deep core needs to fully function.
Additionally, when your diaphragm isn’t working properly, it adds unnecessary stress and load to your back muscles. This is one of the reasons you might not activate your core properly – and one of the reasons the exercise might hurt your back.
5. The form you used is incorrect
The final and most common reason why exercise can hurt your back is that you’re not doing it correctly. There are many people who believe that posture and form are not important. But they do. If you’re lifting weights—especially lifting weights frequently and repeatedly—you want your spine to be in good alignment.
You may not feel pain the first time you lift a weight incorrectly, but it will hurt by the 100th time you do it. The same goes for bodyweight exercises. Just because you’re not burdening your spine doesn’t mean you’re not aggravating it by doing things over and over again with poor posture.
This is really where people get into trouble. If you’re going to exercise – and you want to exercise every day – do it with proper form and posture, otherwise it will catch up with you and cause you unnecessary back pain.
If exercise is currently causing your back to hurt – it could be due to one of these five reasons. Get help from an expert to find out which one it might be – because at the end of the day – exercise is really good for your back. You may just need some expert guidance from a back pain specialist who “gets” the stuff to get there.
Dr. Carrie Jose is a physical therapist and Pilates specialist who owns CJ Physical Therapy and Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To contact or obtain her free guide for people with back pain – visit www.cjphysicaltherapy.com – or call 603-380-7902.