Exercise Is Key for Keeping Back Pain at Bay

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If you suffer from lower back pain, you’re not alone: At any given time, about one in eight people in the world experience back pain. Over the course of your life, there’s about an 80% change you’ll suffer from back pain, meaning those who don’t have back issues at some time in their lives are a small minority. Unfortunately, back pain is hard to get rid of. About half of people with back pain have another episode within a year of recovering from the last one. Fortunately, there’s something you can do about it according to a study released earlier this year that has looked through all the data. The study’s researchers figured out which interventions are the most effective so you can decide where to spend your time and money.

Watch: A Surprising Cause of Back Pain

Why is back pain such a big problem?
Lower back pain has been on the rise for several decades for many reasons, and it’s likely that the back pain a person experiences has several contributing factors. To begin with, waistlines have been expanding over the last several decades. As weight around the waist grows, it pulls on the lower part of the spine and can strain the tendons, ligaments, and muscles that normally hold everything in place. On top of that, people today are moving less and sitting more than their counterparts in the past, both of which can contribute to poor posture and weakening of the muscles that support the spine and other structures of the back. Age is also a big player, since it tends to loosen the ligaments of the spine and weaken the muscles of the back. Other factors, like bone density, smoking, and your genes can also increase your risk for lower back pain.

What are the usual treatments for low back pain?
A quick online search will reveal that there are a variety of ways people use to try to fix back pain. Unfortunately, very few of them are supported by any real science. Exercise and rehabilitation are mainstays of treatment, but many people have also relied on education and devices like back braces to help address pain. Although a lot of studies have been performed to assess these therapies, not all were well-designed or included enough participants to be sure that their findings could be applied to the whole population. These researchers wanted to survey the most recent literature to get a bird’s eye view on the best approach for preventing episodes of chronic back pain.

How did the researchers study back pain?
The researchers combed through all of the studies looking at preventative measures for low back pain and also looked to see whether those interventions affected how many days of work a person missed. Of the 159 studies they found, only 23 made the cut as being well-designed with high-quality data that could be generalized. Together, these 23 studies represented data from almost 31,000 people. The researchers amassed all that data and reanalyzed it to see what it would show in total.

What did the researchers find?
The team found that exercise was an essential part of keeping lower back pain at bay. It both lowered the risk of back pain coming back and reduced the number of days a person took off of work. Exercise was also effective when combined with some sort of education about what sort of exercise you should be doing, say from your doctor or a physical therapist, but education with exercise didn’t seem to change sick days. The caveat to this good news was the effects only lasted for a year at most before back pain started coming back. That means it’s not enough just to exercise right after an episode of lower back pain. The exercise needs to be consistent and part of a regular routine to keep protecting you. Education by itself also wasn’t enough. You actually had to do the exercise to prevent back pain. The team also found that back belts, shoe insoles, and ergonomic adjustments didn’t appear to have any effect on how likely you were to have back pain or how many days you took off of work. All in all, exercise was more effective than the fancy gadgets often claiming to fix your back pain.

How does this apply to me?
If you suffer from lower back pain, having a regular exercise routine seems to be the best way to prevent the pain from coming back. The study shows this is where you should invest your time and money, rather than in special insoles, back belts, or other devices that claim to treat back pain. Take some time to see a doctor and a physical therapist to learn about what types of exercises can be most helpful and then get to work. Remember, the effects of exercise don’t last forever. Just because everything seems back to normal doesn’t mean it’s time to slack off. Having a regular exercise plan will keep your back pain at bay with the extra benefits of better heart health, weight loss, and longer life!