Managing Back Pain: I Want to Keep My Workout on Track, But My Back Hurts!
The lower back is a complex area of the body involving an intricate intersection of muscles, bones, tendons, and the disks that separate and cushion our vertebrae. It’s also a delicate zone that’s prone to strain and occasional soreness. A bad back can sometimes lead to missed work days and abandoned exercise plans, and sometimes the pain of a sore back radiates from such subtle sources that doctors have a hard time diagnosing the specific problem.
But the news about back pain isn’t all bad. An occasional sore back seems to be an inevitable part of being human and standing upright, and most of the time a sore back eases on its own with a little attention and simple treatments that we can manage at home. Rarely do bad back issues require serious medication or surgery.
If you’re experiencing tension, pinching, soreness, burning, or any other questionable sensation in your lower back, keep the following considerations in mind. Give your sore back the attention it deserves and hopefully you’ll be good as new within a few days.
Reasons for a Sore Back: Strain Versus Structural Problems
A bad back tends to manifest itself in a few different ways. After your initial recognition of the problem (Ow, my back hurts!) Try to categorize your pain as one of the following:
- A muscle ache
- A shooting or stabbing sensation
- A pain that radiates down the leg
- The inability to move properly or stand upright.
Pain that fits any of the above descriptions will most likely be caused by either 1) strain or 2) a structural problem. Strain usually results from overstretched muscles or ligaments, heavy lifting with improper technique, or a sudden awkward motion. For now, our discussion will focus on this kind of pain rather than structurally-induced sore back symptoms.
Structural problems can include skeletal irregularities, osteoporosis, arthritis, sciatica, or damaged disks. Unlike strain-induced sore back issues, which can usually be resolved in a few days with self-care, structural problems need the attention of a doctor. Get help if you experience any of these sore back symptoms, especially if they appear unexpectedly or last longer than 72 hours:
- Pain that spreads down the legs, especially if it goes below the knee
- Weakness, tingling or numbness in the legs
- Bowel or bladder problems
- Fever, pain in the abdomen, or unexplained weight loss
- Pain that may have resulted from a recent injury.
My Back Hurts: Focusing on Strain-Induced Sore Back Issues
Structural issues aside, a sore back or bad back isn’t usually a sign of a larger problem, and most of the time we can take a few steps to ease this pain on our own. Even better, a sore back can sometimes be prevented all together. We can do this by focusing on proper technique while working out and making an effort to manage the stress of daily life.
First, let’s talk about treatment. Once the pain arrives, there isn’t much left to do but deal with it on its own terms. Don’t try to ignore or power through a bout of low back pain. Acknowledge the pain and give your sore back the attention it’s asking for.
Dealing with a Bad Back: Treatment and Self Care for Pain, Tension and Sore Back Flare-Ups
The most important advice when treating a sore back? Don’t be afraid. It may seem counterintuitive, but careful exercise is usually better than no exercise at all when you’re trying to soothe an agitated lower back. Take it easy and respect the signals your body sends, but don’t reduce your movements all together if you don’t have to. Prolonged stillness can slow blood flow and oxygen delivery to an area of pain, and this can keep overstretched or inflamed tissues from healing quickly. Instead, recognize your limits and gently push them. Try these stretches to open up blood flow and loosen the tight muscles of a sore back:
With feet shoulder-width apart, move your right foot back a half step and bend your left knee to place your weight on your right hip. Keep your right leg straight and bend forward, reaching down the right leg until you feel a stretch in the outer hip.
Lie on your back with your arms relaxed and your knees bent. Tense your stomach and tilt your hips forward until the small of your back presses against the floor.
Kneel on the floor and rest your bottom on your heels. With your palms on the floor, reach forward as far as you can.
If your sore back is localized to one area, massage that spot for 10 or 15 seconds while breathing deeply. A massage with a heat pack or a piece of ice might be especially helpful. For an ice massage, fill a paper Dixie cup with water and freeze it. Then peel the top part of the cup away from the block of ice, leaving the bottom as a handle. Rub the ice on the area of pain for about ten minutes.
A bout of full-on bed rest may ease a sore back, but don’t lie in bed for more than two days. If your bad back persists and you still have trouble getting up and moving around after that time, call a doctor.
Dealing with a Bad Back: Prevention
Prevent sore back issues before they begin by making these moves a regular part of your workout routine:
1.) Aerobic and cardio-focused exercises
2.) Strengthening exercises focused on the back, stomach, and leg muscles
3.) Stretching, stretching and more stretching. Consider regular yoga with an expert instructor.
If you know you have a bad back, avoid these moves altogether:
1.) Standing toe touches
2.) Straight leg sit-ups
3.) Standing military presses or bicep curls (or any heavy lifting above the waist)
4.) Lifting both legs while lying on your back.
This list is by no means comprehensive; If a certain move seems to be exacerbating your bad back or causing sore back flare-ups, stop doing it. To find an alternative, consult a physical therapist or trainer.
Take body mechanics and proper lifting (both in and outside of the gym) seriously. Listen to your trainer if you have one. If you need feedback on a certain move or if you aren’t sure you’re doing something right, ask. Most important: protect your sore back by taking control, paying attention to your body, and being your own advocate.