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Why resting isn’t the cure to back pain

When you’ve got a niggle in your back, the last thing you want to do is get up and move on with your day. It can feel debilitating, and you might be inclined to believe the best cure is a little rest and relaxation.

Cue: calling in sick to work/school and embarking on a Netflix marathon.

However, new research from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) has revealed that there are specific ways you can overcome back pain (and lying on the couch all day isn’t one of them).

IPAN’s Associate Professor Daniel Belavy spearheaded the world-first study, and said the research revealed that active rather than passive treatments are the most effective ways to reduce pain.

‘Researchers and clinicians have believed for some time now that exercise is beneficial for low back pain,’ he explains. ‘However, nobody has ever been able to demonstrate which exercise is most effective way to relieve the symptoms of chronic low back pain, compared to passive treatments.’

Out of the most effective exercises discovered in the study, Assoc. Prof. Belavy says: ‘there was evidence that pilates and stabilisation or motor control exercise training were the best of these exercises for reducing pain.’

Although you might be opposed to working out while suffering from low back pain, getting active is proven to be the key to recovery.

Why is it so hard to deal with back pain?

Even if you haven’t felt the pang of low back pain before, it’s likely you will at some point in your life.

It’s a condition that affects 80% to 90% of Australians, and Assoc. Prof. Belavy says it represents the greatest cost to Australian society when it comes to disease and lost productivity.

Low back pain accounts for 4.1% of Australia’s total disease burden. It is responsible for lost productivity, with two in five sufferers saying it causes a ‘moderate’ interference in daily activities.

‘While the majority of spinal pain cases resolve without specific intervention, it’s chronic or persistent low back pain that presents the greatest challenge,’ he explains.

'There was evidence that pilates and stabilisation or motor control exercise training were the best of these exercises for reducing pain.'

Associate Professor Daniel Belavy,
Deakin's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN)

‘In the vast majority of chronic low back pain cases, the pain is “non-specific” meaning that clinicians cannot define a specific diagnosis, or cause, of the pain.’

If you’re a sufferer, this can be infuriating: how can you treat something when you don’t know the cause?

These exercises could be the light at the end of the tunnel.

What are the best exercises to beat back pain?

Assoc. Prof. Belavy says there is a common misconception that if someone is in pain they should be resting. ‘But our research shows that when the pain has been there for a long time, exercise is an important part of treatment.’

Although it’s unlikely to be ‘one size fits all’ in terms of the best exercise to treat non-specific chronic low back pain, there is a key takeaway from the research.

‘Our study provides evidence that active therapies where the patient is guided, actively encouraged to move and exercise in a progressive fashion, are the most effective,’ he explains.

The most effective exercises to improve pain, physical function and mental health, according to the study are:

  • resistance exercise, using weight machines or free weights at increasing loads to build strength
  • pilates
  • stabilisation or motor control exercise training, which focuses on training specific muscles
  • aerobic exercise training, such as walking or cycling.

If you’re trying to get on top of low back pain, these might be the best places to begin. But don’t feel as though you have to dive right into pilates classes – you might want to try going for a brisk walk each day and see how you go.

What doesn’t help?

There are certain exercises that were found to be less effective in reducing low back pain.

‘The least likely treatments to be effective included hands-off treatment, such as only educating people about chronic pain or doing psychological interventions alone, and hands-on treatment, like manual therapy, massage and acupuncture,’ Assoc. Prof. Belavy explains.

‘Importantly, stretching and McKenzie exercises, which is a treatment approach that uses a classification system to prescribe exercise, were found to be the least effective kinds of exercises.’

If you’ve been trying an exercise for a while and it doesn’t seem to be helping, try not to become disheartened. Keep trialling different approaches until you find the exercise that works for you. There’s such a variety of effective activities that you might even find one you really enjoy!

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Assoc. Prof. Daniel Belavy
Assoc. Prof. Daniel Belavy

Associate Professor Of Exercise And Musculoskeletal Health, School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University

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