Back pain is a common phenomenon that can affect anyone at any walk of life. In fact, in 2019 The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that approximately 16% of the population suffer some kind of back problem, and that 70-90% of people will experience back pain at some point in their life.
Back pain and problems can result from several reasons, the most common related to injury and posture, degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, and some genetic conditions just to name a few.
Some symptoms of a back problem may include:
- Pain in the lower, middle or upper back
- Spinal degeneration – osteoarthritis
- Canal narrowing
- Stiffness/limited range of motion
- Aggravated nerves, numbness, tingling, electric sensations
- Pain or other symptoms radiating down either, or both legs
Back pain can be categorised into three categories:
- Specific spinal pathology
- Nerve root pain
- Non-specific back pain, where pain caused by a specific pathology, or a nerve root has been ruled out
If you are amongst the 16% of Australians who suffer back pain, chances are you have tried a range of treatments, or seen various healthcare professionals in search of relief or answers. Your GP might have prescribed you pain relief, your physio might have sent you home to do some stretches, and your chiro may have adjusted your joints, but there might be something you haven’t tried – exercise. While there is no “one rule fits all” for treating back pain, studies have found that exercise can be a very successful treatment for back pain, regardless of the cause.
A systematic review (Hayden et al. 2005) looked at 61 studies on exercise therapy for treatment of low back pain and concluded that exercise is an effective therapy for reducing back pain and improving function in those with chronic low back pain. Another systematic review by Hayden et al. (2005) concluded that the most effective strategies to reduce pain and improve function in those with non-specific chronic low back pain include:
- Individualised exercise program – where a qualified exercise therapist will assess a patient and deliver an exercise program suited specifically to the patient’s individual capacity and requirements.
- Supervised setup – whereby the program is prescribed and delivered by a therapist and regular follow-up and progression is provided.
- Enough exercise is achieved – 30-60 minutes daily of moderate-vigorous exercise
- Muscle strengthening and range of motion (ROM) exercises – were shown to be the most effective for improving pain and function.
Some of my favourite exercises to prescribe for my patients with lower back pain include:
- Regular walking/physical activity
- Core (back, core and hip) strength and stability such as:
- Side lying clam
- Isometric banded squat
- Bird dog
- Romanian deadlift
- Range of motion (ROM)
- Cat camel
- Spiderman stretch
- Thoracic stretch
- Book openers
Please note that while these exercises are some that are frequently used in the rehabilitation of back conditions, this does not aim to replace an individualised exercise program designed by a therapist. If you are experiencing back pain, please talk to a qualified exercise therapist (physiotherapist or exercise physiologist) to find out what treatment might work best for you.
Author – Courtney Donaldson, Accredited Clinical Exercise Physiologist
BClinExPhys (Hons), AEP, AES, ESSAM
June 19th 2022
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2019, Microdata: National Health Survey, 2017–18, cat. No. 4324.0.55.001, ABS, Canberra.
Hayden, J, van Tulder, MW & Tomlinson, G 2005, ‘Systematic Review: Strategies for Using Exercise Therapy To Improve Outcomes in Chronic Low Back Pain’, Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 142, no.9, pp. 776-785.
Hayden, J, van Tulder, MW, Malmivaara, A & Koes, BW 2005, ‘Exercise Therapy for Treatment of Non-Specific Low Back Pain (Review)’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 3, art. no. CD000355, DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000335.pub2.