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Exercise May Reduce Risk of Low Back Pain

Low back pain is a common complaint that can last a few days or weeks or become a chronic condition with significant impact on well being. Treatments can vary depending on the cause. Chronic back pain can be difficult to successfully treat and it may take some time to find what treatment works best for each person. Since treatment is not guaranteed to work, prevention is the best option. Back pain is often the result of long term stress on the back such as poor posture, sedentary behavior, or regular strain on the back. Prevention will likely involve a number of different steps to reduce these stresses. However, existing studies have not found clear recommendations for the best methods to go about it.

Researchers wanted to investigate the effectiveness of a number of interventions for the prevention of low back pain. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that exercise alone or in combination with education was most effective for preventing low back pain.

About the Study

The systematic review of 21 randomized controlled trials included 30,850 men and women without low back pain. The participants were randomized to 6 different prevention strategies, including exercise, education, exercise plus education, back belt, and shoe insoles. The control groups received no intervention, minimal interventions, or placebo.

When compared to the control group exercise was associated with:

  • Fewer low back pain episodes in the first 12 months (in 4 trials with 898 people)
  • Fewer sick days due to back pain in follow up 12 months or longer (in 2 trials with 128 people)
  • Reduction in short-term (4 trials with 422 people) and long-term low-back pain episodes (2 trials with 138 people) when combined with education

Education alone, back belts, and shoe insoles did not appear to have any benefit during the trials.

How Does This Affect You?

A systematic review combines the results of several smaller studies to arrive at one result. The benefit of this type of review is that it increases the number of participants which increase reliability of results. However the review is only as reliable as the studies that are included and the method used to combine the results. There were some flaws in every trial that were included in this analysis. For example, many of the included trials had a high dropout rate during the trial which decreases the reliability of their results.

Low back pain is often associated with an imbalance or weakness of certain back muscles. An exercise program will improve your physical fitness, strengthen your back muscles, and help you maintain a healthy weight. Regular physical activity may also help maintain a healthy weight which can also put strain on your back. Choose exercises or activities that you enjoy and will make a regular part of your day. For most people, this could include 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per day.

Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

  • Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

  • Ortho Info—American Academy of Othopaedics

  • Acute low back pain. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated March 2, 2016. Accessed March 22, 2016.

  • Steffens D, Maher CG, et al. Prevention of low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Feb 1;176(2):199-208.