Exercise to Minimize Back Pain

A recent piece on National Public Radio (NPR) proclaims “Forget the Gizmos: Exercise Works Best for Low Back Pain”.  This is a common ailment and, as the article states, “it is very democratic in the people it strikes”.  The medical profession has been plagued with complaints that often have a non-specific origin.  When cause is not obvious, treatment can be equally elusive.  Interestingly, even when some cause seems present intervention can remain a mystery.  In fact, according to studies done by Dr. John Sarno (“Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection”) “some people with back pain had similar X-ray and CAT Scan findings as people who did not have back pain.”  This demonstrates that even physical evidence may not be the actual cause of the pain.


A recent review of studies done with over 30,000 patients from all over the world showed that exercise is actually the most effective treatment for chronic low back pain.  The findings were published in a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) along with commentary by Dr. Tim Carey of the University of North Carolina.  Surprisingly, however, few health care providers actually prescribe exercise for their patients.  Other passive interventions are more commonly recommended.  This review also found that most of those recommendations actually had little effect on relieving the pain.  Dr. Carey writes, “we don’t think of exercise as being a treatment the way a tablet or a procedure or a physical therapy treatment might.”  And yet it is cheap and effective.

Fear of pain can be an important impediment to moving the area that hurts.  However, gentle movement is essential to helping our muscles learn how to work together again.  Our body is a series of systems rather than individual components working alone.  Avoiding movement can keep our muscles tense and at risk of further injury.  It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy:  the less we move, the less we want to move and the more difficult it becomes to get moving again.  Learning to gradually relax our muscles helps keep them pliable and better able to accommodate functional movement.

Using the mindfulness that accompanies yoga and Pilates, practitioners can learn to relax tense muscles and progressively re-establish functional movement.  It won’t happen all at once so patience is required along with attention.  But consistent practice will begin to help participants regain pain-free strength, endurance, coordination and self-confidence.  Sometimes all it takes is overcoming the fear of trying and being willing to explore.

So even if you’ve been plagued with a painful condition, it’s never too late to try and get moving again.  Any movement is better than none and you may be surprised to find what you actually can do just by making an effort and paying attention.

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