Exercise may help ease lower back pain — just as long as the exercise is not specifically targeting the back, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that of the nearly 700 patients with low back pain they followed for 18 months, those who walked and got other forms of “recreational” exercise had a lower risk of pain over time. In contrast, those who performed exercises specifically for their backs appeared to make matters worse.
Lower back pain is one of the most common reasons for Americans’ trips to the doctor, and the top reason people seek alternative therapies like acupuncture. Chiropractors and physical therapists often prescribe exercises to mobilize and strengthen the lower back, but growing evidence suggests that targeting the back does not help, and may even aggravate, the pain.
The new findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health, add to that notion and point to the benefits of general activity like brisk walking or swimming.
“Our findings suggest that general physical activity is more beneficial,” Dr. Eric L. Hurwitz of the University of California, Los Angeles told Reuters Health.
Study participants who got the equivalent of 3 or more hours of brisk walking per week had a better prognosis than those who got little to no general exercise-showing improvements, Hurwitz said, in pain, disability and psychological distress.
On the other hand, back exercises generally increased patients’ risk of suffering pain and disability over time.
Exactly why general activity may help back pain sufferers’ recovery, while back exercises may hinder it, is unclear. According to Hurwitz, the benefits of general exercise could be related to endorphins-natural painkilling chemicals released by the brain during exertion-or to the muscle toning and overall sense of well-being that comes with physical activity.
As for why back exercises may fail, Hurwitz said, it could be that people tend to perform them incorrectly, or that individuals are often not prescribed the specific exercises that could benefit them.
What does seem clear is the importance of staying active.
“Sitting is not beneficial for people with low-back pain,” Hurwitz noted. “Being sedentary delays recovery and makes the back more prone to (pain) recurrence.”
Some people with lower back pain worry that walking and other exercise will make their pain worse, according to Hurwitz. Doctors, he said, need to get them past that fear and encourage them to be active.