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Exercising after a back injury? Tips for avoiding further injury

People experience pain after a spine injury in unique ways. Sometimes its immobilizing at first and then for many it can lessen to barely a twinge. But whether you’re a gym rat, a weekend warrior or somewhere in between, it’s completely natural to worry if exercising after a spine injury could cause further damage and if you should hold off on working out or keep exercising.

Most experts agree that regular exercise is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy back. However after a back injury exercise can be problematic if done improperly.

Following are some do’s and don’ts for exercising after a back injury.


Do

Do work around the pain

The first rule of thumb is to work around – not through – pain.

You shouldn’t force yourself to exercise through severe pain. But if you are experiencing only some lingering achiness, that doesn’t rule out your workout. It’s important to note that just because one area of the neck or back was injured doesn’t mean you need to avoid moving the entire spine. There is a strong body of evidence pointing to the atrophy of spinal stabilizer muscles (also called core muscles) with inactivity, making it harder to achieve a strong and healthy spine. So we encourage you to keep as active as you can.

Do go slowly

Go slowly in introducing new movements. Add one new movement every two to three days and wait to see how your body responds. Be careful to only add more movements after determining your comfort level with each previous one. As a general rule, avoid exercises that involve any twisting of the spine until your back is fully pain free.

Do go low impact

Start with low-impact exercises such as walking, using a cross trainer (elliptical machine) or a stationary bike in the beginning. These exercises can help boost blood flow to the back muscles while diminishing pain and stiffness.

Do work to strengthen your core

The core are the group of muscles in the back and abdomen that support the spine. Core strengthening exercises with slow, gentle and repetitive movements, such as those incorporated into yoga or Pilates, can be very helpful after a back injury. Good instructors in yoga and Pilates should be able to focus their programs to someone who is recovering from a back injury. These programs are also beneficial in keeping your back in shape after your course of physical therapy/ home exercise program ends.

Do build up over time

As you start to feel stronger and more pain free, considering adding lunges, squats, planks and other moves that strengthen several core muscle groups at once.


Don't

Do not forget to keep your spine tuned with exercise

Undeniably exercising can be difficult for people experiencing pain, but it’s often a key way to help heal from injury and prevent future episodes of hurting. One of the main goals during physical therapy is to teach people how to exercise properly – which, when done right, can strengthen muscles and improve endurance and flexibility.

Pain, tenderness and aches are typical after a spine injury, but severe pain should serve as a warning to avoid certain exercises. However, there are other muscle groups surrounding the affected area that you can still strengthen and stretch. For example, crunches or planks are not the only way to strengthen the spine. Sometimes there is reduced flexibility of the lower extremities that can be improved just as importantly as strengthening, to prevent pain recurrence.

Approximately 80% of American adults suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. Therefore “spine tuning” – strengthening your back through exercise and implementing spine-healthy habits – is particularly important in the months after an initial injury.

Do not take the hardest classes

Don’t start with high-impact exercises such as contact sports, racquet sports, jogging, golf, weight lifting, dancing or sit-ups until your doctor or physical therapist says it’s OK. You need to work up to high-impact sports before your back is able to fully handle them. Depending on the intensity of your pain and level of activity, recovery time can vary. It is best to consult with a doctor or physical therapist to see if you are ready for a higher level of activity.

Do not strain your back performing back stretches

Don’t use a stability ball to stretch our your back - these place a great deal of stress on an already-vulnerable spine. Also, some highly stressful yoga poses that stretch out your back should be avoided as well. When stretching, consider sideways bending and rotation stretching, but be careful not to strain your back too much here as well.

Do not slump or slouch

Don’t forget to avoid all the bad postures that you know are adding to your pain, be it slumping at your work desk or slouching in the couch at home. It is also recommended that you use an ergonomic chair, monitor stand, set your keyboard and mouse up so that it doesn’t strain your back, etc. while you are at your computer so that you maintain proper posture.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

Some people might think that if you have back pain that you should avoid activity for a long time. But this is not accurate and experts don’t recommend being sedentary in order to avoid re-injuring your spine. In fact, a well rounded workout regimen should include exercises that stretch, strengthen and condition the back and rest of the body. We encourage people to seek the advice of a physician or a physical therapist for exercises and direction about how to safely rehabilitate the back after an injury.


More expert advice about Injuries

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Sridhar Yalamanchili, PT, MSPTDirector of Rehabilitation

Atlantic Spine Center is a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with three locations in New Jersey in West Orange, Edison and North Bergen. Sridhar Yalamanchili, PT, MSPT, is Director of Rehabilitation at Atlantic Spine ...

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