Exercise to beat back pain

Most people will be affected by back pain at some point in their life. In the UK, an estimated 2.5 million people are suffering from back pain every day. It’s the single greatest cause of absenteeism and indirectly costs the economy £3.8 billion a year in lost production.

Since starting Kinesis Pilates & Fitness Studio three months ago, I’ve taken on four clients with sore backs — one the result of an old injury and three whose pain has no identifiable cause. There are many reasons why someone might suffer from back pain: trauma or injury, degenerative disease, being overweight and, in an increasing number of cases, a sedentary lifestyle. Office workers spend an average of nine hours a day behind a desk and are particularly vulnerable.

I’m a typical case. I began to experience chronic back pain when I was a full-time journalist. I visited my GP, who told me I had degeneration of the lumbar spine and there was nothing to be done. Another doctor diagnosed me with ligament damage and gave me a cortisone injection, which was wonderful for the two months it lasted.

Like most office workers, long periods spent behind a desk had affected my posture and increased the load on my spine. I had become over-reliant on the wrong muscles, resulting in fatigue and, ultimately, injury. Painkillers provided temporary relief, but merely addressed the symptoms and not the cause. Rest is often prescribed for back pain, but inactivity can exacerbate the problem, leading to further muscle degeneration and loss of mobility.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to exercise when you’re in pain, a well-designed programme can provide relief and help to prevent recurrence. Pilates has virtually eliminated my back issues, but other forms of exercise can be just as effective.

No matter what you do, your programme should address the muscular imbalances, which we all have to a greater or lesser degree. A physio or trained exercise professional can assess a client’s posture and movement patterns and recommend exercises to restore balance to the body by strengthening what is weak and lengthening what it short and tight. Correct alignment ensures optimal weight distribution and minimal stress on the spine.

Creating a strong core is also key. The core encompasses the musculature of the entire trunk, both deep and superficial, but it’s the deepest layer of muscles that is designed to support the spine and most people are unable to access these muscles without specific training. A functional core is strong and stable, but also dynamic, able to respond to different demands with only as much muscular effort as is necessary. Sitting at a desk, for example, requires a very different level of engagement from lifting a heavy box.

But it’s not only our muscles we must train; the neurological system plays a vital role. I am constantly amazed by how little awareness people have of their bodies. Without this, it’s impossible to sit, stand or move correctly and it places unnecessary strain on our backs.

Simple exercises can improve awareness and help to create neuromuscular patterns that ensure we recruit the right muscles. This is particularly important for those who are already in pain. To protect the injured area, other muscles take over. The injured ones become weaker and it starts a cycle of pain that only learning new movement patterns can break.

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