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Low Back Pain: Exercises to Reduce Pain


What is an Actionset?
  • Low back pain is very common among adults and is often caused by overuse and muscle strain or injury. Treatment can help you stay as active as possible. And it will help you understand that some continued or repeated back pain is not surprising or dangerous.
  • Most low back pain can get better if you stay active, avoid positions and activities that may increase or cause back pain, use ice, and take nonprescription pain relievers when you need them.
  • When you no longer have acute pain, you may be ready for gentle strengthening exercises for your stomach, back, and legs, and perhaps for some stretching exercises. Exercise may not only help decrease low back pain, but it may also help you recover faster, prevent reinjury to your back, and reduce the risk of disability from back pain.
  • Exercises to reduce low back pain are not complicated and can be done at home without any special equipment.
  • It's important that you don't let fear of pain keep you from trying gentle activity. You should try to be active soon after noticing pain, and gradually increase your activity level. Too little activity can lead to loss of flexibility, strength, and endurance, and then to more pain.

Exercises that may help reduce or prevent low back pain include:

  • Aerobic exercise, to condition your heart and other muscles, maintain health, and speed recovery.
  • Strengthening exercises, focusing on your back, stomach, and leg muscles.
  • Stretching exercises, to keep your muscles and other supporting tissues flexible and less prone to injury.

Some exercises can aggravate back pain. If you have low back pain, avoid:

  • Straight-leg sit-ups.
  • Bent-leg sit-ups or partial sit-ups (curl-ups) when you have acute back pain.
  • Lifting both legs while lying on your back (leg lifts).
  • Lifting heavy weights above the waist (standing military press or biceps curls).
  • Toe touches while standing.

Test Your Knowledge

Do not exercise if you have low back pain.

True
False

Exercise and staying active may relieve low back pain and can help speed your recovery. Stretching and strengthening your stomach, back, and leg muscles helps make them less susceptible to injury that can cause back pain. Strong stomach, back, and leg muscles also better support your spine, reducing pressure on your spinal discs. This may help prevent disc injury.

Aerobic exercises—such as walking, swimming, or walking in waist-deep water—also help you maintain a healthy back. Aerobic exercise makes your heart and other muscles use oxygen more efficiently. Muscles that often receive oxygen-rich blood stay healthier.

Test Your Knowledge

Exercise and activity may help reduce the risk of disability from back pain.

True
False

Most people who have back pain naturally feel better by doing certain motions. Some feel better sitting (their back and hips are flexed). Others feel better standing (back and hips are extended). Exercise that moves you toward your more comfortable position is usually more successful in treating your back pain.1 For example, if you are more comfortable sitting down, exercises that bend you forward—such as partial sit-ups (curl-ups) and knee-to-chest exercises—may help you.

Talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program, and only do exercises that do not increase your symptoms.

The most effective exercise programs for chronic low back pain are designed specifically for you and are supervised.2 For example, a physical therapist might teach you an exercise program that you can use at home. Then you would see the therapist every so often to check on your progress and advance your program.

  • Talk to your doctor or physical therapist if you are unsure how to do these exercises or if you feel any pain when you are doing the exercises.
  • Try to exercise a little bit every day.
    • Get some type of aerobic exercise, such as walking, every day. Even a couple of minutes will be helpful, and you can gradually increase your time.
    • Choose a couple of stretching and strengthening exercises that you enjoy doing, or vary them from day to day.

Ask your doctor or physical therapist whether there are additional exercises that will work best for you.

Exercises to try if your back pain is eased by standing or lying down:

  • Alternate arm and leg (bird dog)Click here to see an illustration.
  • Backward bendClick here to see an illustration.
  • BridgingClick here to see an illustration.
  • Hip flexor stretchClick here to see an illustration.
  • Press-upClick here to see an illustration.
  • Relax and restClick here to see an illustration.

Exercises to try if your back pain is eased by sitting down:

  • Double knee-to-chestClick here to see an illustration.
  • Piriformis stretchClick here to see an illustration.
  • Single knee-to-chestClick here to see an illustration.

Exercises to try when no position eases your back pain:

  • Cat-camelClick here to see an illustration.
  • ClamshellClick here to see an illustration.
  • Curl-upsClick here to see an illustration.
  • Front plankClick here to see an illustration.
  • Hamstring stretchClick here to see an illustration.
  • Pelvic rock, sittingClick here to see an illustration.
  • Pelvic rock, standingClick here to see an illustration.
  • Pelvic tiltClick here to see an illustration.
  • Side plank, beginnerClick here to see an illustration.
  • Side plank, intermediateClick here to see an illustration.
  • WalkingClick here to see an illustration.
  • Wall sitClick here to see an illustration.

Test Your Knowledge

Exercises to reduce low back pain take a long time and are difficult to do.

True
False

For more information about exercises to reduce low back pain, talk to:

  • Your doctor.
  • A physical therapist.

The following resources have more information about back pain:

Organizations

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS)
6300 North River Road
Rosemont, IL 60018-4262
Phone: (847) 823-7186
Fax: (847) 823-8125
Email: orthoinfo@aaos.org
Web Address: www.orthoinfo.aaos.org

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) provides information and education to raise the public's awareness of musculoskeletal conditions, with an emphasis on preventive measures. The AAOS website contains information on orthopedic conditions and treatments, injury prevention, and wellness and exercise.


American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
9700 West Bryn Mawr Avenue
Suite 200
Rosemont, IL 60018-5701
Phone: (847) 737-6000
Fax: (847) 737-6001
Email: info@aapmr.org
Web Address: www.aapmr.org

The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPMR) is the medical society for the specialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation. The website includes a directory of member PM&R physicians (physiatrists) that can be searched by last name, location, or telephone number.


Move Forward
1111 North Fairfax Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-1488
Phone: 1-800-999-APTA (1-800-999-2782)
(703) 684-2782
Fax: (703) 684-7343
TDD: (703) 683-6748
Web Address: www.apta.org
Web Address: www.moveforwardpt.com

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Move Forward website provides information and education to the public about physical therapy and how it is used to treat certain conditions. APTA is a national organization representing over 85,000 physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and students. APTA's goal is to foster advancements in physical therapist education, practice, and research.


Return to topic:

  • Low Back Pain

Citations

  1. Long A, et al. (2004). Does it matter which exercise? Spine, 29(23): 2593–2602.

  2. Hayden JA, et al. (2005). Systematic review: Strategies for using exercise therapy to improve outcomes in chronic low back pain. Annals of Internal Medicine, 142(9): 776–785.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerJoan Rigg, PT, OCS - Physical Therapy
Last RevisedFebruary 15, 2012

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