Back pain keeps more people away from work than any other single cause except the common cold.
9 of 10 people experience back pain during their lifetimes. Why? Long hours of sitting in cars, at desks, and on couches force the body into a C-shaped slump and this places uneven pressure on the vertebral disks of the lower back. With time, the spine can become deformed and erode disks.
The solution to back pain, therefore, is simply not to sit. Unfortunately, it is impossible in our culture to avoid the act of sitting. The best remedy is to counteract long periods of sitting with exercise programs that target back health.
The best forms of exercise to promote back health are those that target the “core muscles”:
- Extensors (back and gluteal muscles), which are used to straighten the back (stand), lift and extend, and move the thighs out away from the body.
- Flexors (abdominal and iliopsoas muscles), which are used to bend and support the spine from the front; they also control the arch of the lumbar (lower) spine and flex and move the thigh in toward the body.
- Obliques or Rotators (side muscles), which are used to stabilize the spine when upright; they rotate the spine and help maintain proper posture and spinal curvature.
The following three forms of exercise are ideal for back health and have become increasingly popular in the United States.
The important principles of Pilates are consistent with an exercise program that promotes back health. In particular, learning awareness of neutral alignment of the spine and strengthening the deep postural muscles that support this alignment are important skills for the back pain patient.
Patients with pain stemming from excessive movement and degeneration of the intervertebral discs and joints are particularly likely to benefit from a Pilates exercise program. In addition, postural asymmetries can be improved, thus decreasing wear and tear resulting from uneven stresses on the intervertebral joints and discs.
Pilates improves strength, flexibility and suppleness of the muscles of the hip and shoulder girdle. Fluid and supported movement through these joints helps prevent unnecessary torque on the vertebral column.
The Pilates program also teaches awareness of movement habits that may stress the spine, and helps the patient change these habits to those that preserve neutral alignment. Awareness of excessive tension and the use of proper focus helps the patient use the body efficiently.
Many aspects of yoga make it ideal for treating back pain and neck pain. Studies have shown that those who practice yoga for as little as twice a week for 8 weeks make significant gains in strength, flexibility, and endurance, which is a basic goal of most rehabilitation programs for back pain or neck pain.
In addition, the breathing and meditation aspects of yoga induce a “relaxation response” that has been found to assist people in decreasing their pain.
The exercise ball (my personal favorite) is effective in rehabilitation of the back because it helps strengthen and develop the core body muscles that help to stabilize the spine.
With the exercise ball, an element of instability is introduced to the exercise. The body responds automatically to this instability to keep balanced on the ball. Over time, the muscles used to keep in balance become stronger.
The benefits of ball exercise for people with low back pain include:
- Simple and versatile way to start moving again after back pain episode
- Improved muscle strength
- Greater flexibility and range of motion of the spine
- Enhanced balance and coordination of core muscle groups used to stabilize the spine and control proper posture while using the exercise ball
- Increased tendency to maintain a neutral spine position during exercise