Have you ever experienced this? You bend or lift or twist, feel a "tweak," then suddenly pain and muscle spasm followed by trouble bending, sitting ... even moving!
It's a dreaded experience and unfortunately for many individuals, an experience that seems to happen again and again. Keeping your back muscles strong through exercise may be the key to treating low back pain — and preventing its return.
Types of back pain
There are two types of low back pain: acute and chronic.
- Acute pain is sudden pain that lasts no longer than 6 weeks. It is the most common type of low back pain and usually resolves on its own with minimal treatment. Doctors do not recommend exercise or surgery for acute pain.
- Chronic pain lasts longer than 3 months and usually requires some sort of treatment.
So what can help with chronic low back pain? In some cases, surgery is necessary, but in most cases ice or heat, medication, and exercise bring relief.
Preventing Back Pain
Many doctors are now prescribing a specific type of exercise for their patients to strengthen back muscles — lumbar stabilization.
Lumbar vertebrae are the vertebrae, or bones, of the lower spine. Lumbar stabilization is exercise that is very effective in helping individuals who suffer from chronic low back pain.
Kim Bradshaw, senior physical therapist at John Muir Health, says that stabilizing the spine is important when preventing injury. "To stabilize anything means to make it stronger and secure — better able to withstand various stresses and strains," says Bradshaw.
A tall pole can be stabilized with steel wires coming down from the top and secured into the ground. This will make it better able to withstand gusty winds. Think of our spines like that tall pole.
As we go through our day, our spine needs to be able to absorb the stresses and strains of lifting, bending, rotating, and a variety of other forces. "If our stabilizing muscles are weak, the spine is forced to take more of that load and may become injured as a result," adds Bradshaw.
The stabilizing muscles include the abdominals, back muscles, and hip muscles. According to Bradshaw, strengthening these muscle groups takes more than just sit-ups and crunches.
"The abdominal muscles are crucial to good back stabilization. But it's the transverse abdominals — muscles that run horizontally right to left across your lower abdomen that are the key,” she says.
“If those muscles are not working correctly, you may be doing lots of sit-ups, and strengthening certain abdominal muscles, but not working your transverse muscles much at all.… You need to learn how to kick in those transverse abdominals."
When a physical therapist evaluates an individual with back pain for the first time, one of the things they're assessing is the quality of lumbar stabilization. Once the therapist identifies the weak areas, she can prescribe exercises to target those muscle groups.
"One of the most rewarding aspects of working with an individual in physical therapy is seeing true joy return to someone's face as their pain improves over time," Bradshaw says.
"People who don't exercise are often amazed at the big payback they get from doing as little as ten minutes of stabilization exercises a day. And people who do regular exercise are sometimes shocked to find out their exercise technique is all wrong, and that it may actually be contributing to their back pain."
If you have back pain that flares up periodically, ask your doctor if stabilization exercises are appropriate for you.
Physical therapists at John Muir Health are available to evaluate core strength and develop appropriate and customized stabilization exercises. They can answer questions and develop a home program to help reduce back pain.
Physical therapy is also available and can be initiated with a doctor's prescription.
Good lumbar stabilization has many benefits. "It's not just about having a stronger body for strength's sake alone," Bradshaw says. "It's all about doing something for yourself that may lead you to a more active and comfortable lifestyle. It's certainly worth checking out."