Most people with chronic back pain know that exercise is an important part of treatment. Strengthening the muscles of the core allows them to support the back muscles and spine in their plight to maintain spinal alignment and proper posture against gravity. Not as much attention has been given to aerobic exercise in terms of its efficacy in pain management, although there is evidence to support a role for it.
It has long been noted that athletes are able to handle more pain than non-athletic people. In the 1996 Olympics, American gymnast Kerri Strug badly injured her ankle on her first vault. In pursuit of the gold medal, she went on to complete her second vault in excruciating pain and did, in fact, take the medal. How was she physically capable of running down the runway to do that second vault with a bum ankle?
Endurance athletes had more consistent tolerance measurements, while game sport athletes had varying measurements.
It is common knowledge that the endorphins released during exercise have an analgesic effect, but some of the studies assessed by the researchers showed specifically that the increase in pain tolerance among active people is a baseline increase, extending beyond the immediate post-workout time period. This means that regular exercise leads to long-term increases in pain coping ability.
While strength-building is an important part of a back pain exercise plan, you may benefit from adding in some high-intensity cardio. Although this component may not relieve your back pain, it may help you to cope with it and decrease your disability level. The study at ptjournal.apta.org supports the use of high-intensity aerobic exercise for back pain management.
Circuit training is an excellent way to incorporate both strength-training and aerobic exercise into your routine. It is essentially a rotation of different exercises and activities in short, intense bursts. This can be done at a gym, where you can alternate machines and stations every minute or two. You can take a class where you are timed at each station and instructed when to rotate. You can also do it from home with the help of online videos or DVDs. Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred is a popular example of circuit training. If you have a spinal condition, SI joint dysfunction or muscle imbalances, talk with your doctor or physical therapist before starting an exercise program.
Aside from helping you tolerate pain better, aerobic exercise can help reduce back pain in a couple ways. First, cardio workouts help more blood and oxygen get delivered to your muscles, which replenish them with nutrients and flush out waste. Second, a good aerobic workout burns calories and, when done regularly, can help shed extra pounds. Being overweight significantly increases your chance of developing back pain.
Back pain treatment should involve both strength-building and cardio exercise. Besides increasing overall health, this combination of exercises will help you better tolerate pain, and may even reduce it.