Exercise is one of the most common conservative treatments for chronic back pain. If you have osteoarthritis, however, it probably feels like exercise is beyond your capacity. Osteoarthritis involves the wearing down of the facet joints that link the vertebrae of the spine together. As we age, less protein is available to maintain and repair cartilage; it becomes weak. This can lead to friction between the vertebrae and inflammation around the affected joints.
Moving with osteoarthritis is painful, and conducting exercises may seem impossible. Since the joints are worn, any jarring of the spine can exacerbate pain. This jarring occurs even whe the foot strikes the ground; shock is sent through all the joints of the body.
Since gravity is not the friend of osteoarthritis, why not take movement to the water? Submerged in water, the amount of your body’s weight that you bear is reduced by about 90%, so your joints are not being jarred by your movements. Also, water is about 800 times more dense than air; it resists movement, which makes it possible for you to build strength in the pool as well as get an aerobic workout.
Building muscles will help to support weak joints in their efforts to resist and facilitate motion. Core muscle exercises are especially helpful, since this muscle group is responsible for supporting the upper body’s weight and the spine in its proper alignment.
Stretching in warm water can help to restore range of motion to stiff joints. Without your body’s weight on joints, you can slowly move them through their ranges of motion, loosening them up and helping to increase blood flow to the area. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients with it, and these are needed to repair and maintain healthy tissue. Increased blood flow can also flush out inflammation from injured areas, which will reduce pain.
Finally, exercise releases endorphins in the body. These chemicals are released by the brain during workouts and help to naturally fight pain.
Though the subject has not been researched extensively by the scientific community, there are a few studies that support the benefits of water aerobics for those with osteoarthritis. The study found at NCBI.nim.gov in the Cochrane Database assesses many studies, one of which includes a comparison of land-based and water-based exercise for those with osteoarthritis. It reports a significant reduction of pain in the water-based group over that of the land-based group, however, long-term discrepancies were not assessed.
Supporting this is the conclusion of a small study published in Spine. This study assessed the effects of water aerobics on those with chronic lower back pain (not necessarily linked to osteoarthritis). It also concluded that patients undergoing exercise programs in the water benefitted more than those on land.
It is possible to exercise with osteoarthritis. This exercise can help reduce painful inflammation and build muscles that support weakened joints, on top of improving your overall health. The process of treating back pain is often a long one; diagnosis can take a while, and effective treatments may take some time to find. Just be sure to keep an open mind. Whatever the limitation set by your pain, there is a way to work within it.