Let’s face it, almost everyone has faced or will face lower back pain at some point in their lives.
The discomfort might range anywhere from a mild ache, to an intense stabbing sensation which may even refer down your legs or other areas of the body. Pain may come on all of a sudden, or take some time before rearing its ugly head.
Regardless of your specific situation, it is only normal to wonder if it’s best to wait until your back is pain free, or if exercise can actually speed up the healing process.
I am going to address these concerns from a scientific perspective.
Is it Safe to Exercise With Low Back Pain?
Well, it depends…
There are some situations where it is safe to exercise at moderate to even high intensity, and others where you should hold off for the time being. Needless to say, things can get quite intricate.
To simplify this as much as possible, I have broken down the most common types of back pain people experience into three categories. Keep in mind that I always recommend seeing a Doctor or Physiotherapist so they can properly assess your unique situation.
This should only be used as a general guide.
Dull ache is arguably the most common and least intense type of back pain; relatively speaking…
It occurs continuously in a localized area and may intensify when pressure is applied to it. More often than not, dull achy back pain is the result of a mild to moderate injury at a muscle, tendon or ligament attached to the pelvis and/or spine.
You probably felt a tweak or pulled a muscle doing something with poor form. Or maybe you spent too much time sitting or in another compromised position and are just now feeling the effects.
On a scale of 0-10, this pain can range anywhere from a 1-7 from hardly noticeable to only somewhat manageable.
If your pain is between 1 and 4, it is safe to exercise with caution. This means spending a little extra time warming up the hip and low back region, no ballistic or jerky movements, and keeping an eye on your pain levels ensuring that they go no higher than 4 out of 10. If they do, stop the activity and choose something else.
If the pain is between 5 and 7, you may need to take a day or two of rest in an attempt to bring levels down. Using heat, massage, pain medication and TENS are ways to help speed up healing and manage pain levels during this time.
Do not stop moving altogether. Walking and slow gentle activity that doesn’t make the pain significantly worse should help. But no heavy weights or intense sports for now.
Sharp or Shooting Pains
Sharp pain is the next step up from dull ache. Unlike a heavy or sore sensation, this is more of a sudden, intense spike that may fade and re-occur several times. It’s almost like if someone was taking a sharp knife and poking at the internal structures of the back and hip.
This type of back pain usually indicates a more serious injury at a muscle, tendon or ligament, or spinal compression causing one of your intervertebral disks to rupture or herniate. If you’re older, age related wear and tear might be starting to kick in such as intervertebral disk degeneration, Spondylosis, Arthritis or other inflammatory disease.
On a scale of 0-10, this usually falls on the high side ranging anywhere from 6 all the way to 10 in severe cases. Any movement or exercise that triggers or intensifies sharp pain should be avoided and if it doesn’t get better after a day or two, you likely need to see your Doctor or Physiotherapist for a specific diagnosis so you can receive proper treatment.
This might involve rest and similar treatments I discussed for dull achy pain, but could require surgery or other invasive intervention before you’re well enough to start exercising again.
Simply put, if the pain is sharp, rest; DO NOT EXERCISE.
Burning, Tingling or Numbing
The last type of back pain you might have involves burning, tingling or numbing sensations at the back and potentially other areas like your butt, upper back, or legs. Anything that resembles this description means that your nervous system is at play; specifically your spinal cord and corresponding spinal nerves which run all over your body.
This type of pain can fall anywhere on the pain scale which makes it by far the most complex and frustrating.
If the pain is around 1-4, you’ve probably got some form of mild nerve impingement at the pelvis or elsewhere. This can be remedied by spending more time mobilizing the hips and spine along with appropriate exercises. If exercise doesn’t make it worse and you can keep a close eye on pain levels, I say go for it; but avoid spine flexion if possible.
If pain is higher than 5 and not getting any better, you should see your Doctor or Physiotherapist for testing. It may indicate a disk herniation, Sciatica, Spondylolisthesis, infection or other spinal nerve compression.
Do not go back to the gym and try to fight through the pain. Do not pass GO. Do not collect 200 dollars.
What if it Feels Like a Combination of Pain Types?
You might conclude that your pain falls into more than one category. If this is the case, I recommend following the most conservative recommendation listed.
When it comes to low back pain, exercise caution. Literally and figuratively 😉
Work With A Pro
At Stephen Fitness & Rehabilitation, we provide one on one personal training and exercise therapy in the comfort of home.
We prescribe and supervise exercise routines that are specifically designed for individuals in London & Oakville, Ontario dealing with lower back pain.
Contact us to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one(s) become stronger, more mobile and independent in the comfort of home!