April 22, 2023

Can people with chronic back pain run? The answer may surprise you.

Back pain is a common condition that affects many people in the United States. A frequent misconception about chronic back pain is that someone experiencing it should stop exercising — specifically running — to avoid pain. However, experts say that running — with some caveats — is good for your spine health.

“I see a lot of patients who’ve had back pain for many years and gave up running,” said Dr. Aaron Yang, a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor with the Vanderbilt Spine Center. “I’m trying to get them back into running, if they are interested, as much as possible unless I have a reason not to.”

Yang added that he rarely tells patients to avoid running. That’s because studies show running can be of benefit to the spine. Additionally, as a runner himself, Yang said he appreciates its benefits for physical and mental health.

Exercise is good for the spine and beyond

Yang tells his patients that “motion is lotion.” Running, for example, engages your core and helps improve your posture, he said. It can help with weight management, which can also benefit spine health.

“One thing I can relate to is that running can help reduce stress and improve your mood,” he said. “It improves your overall health and well-being.”

“Running can help reduce stress and improve your mood. It improves your overall health and well-being.”

That’s why Yang wants to spread the word that running isn’t off limits for people with back pain: That’s a myth.

“Not everyone loves to run, but even just walking at a brisk pace is good for you mentally and physically,” Yang said.

What the research says

Regular running is associated with better characteristics of intervertebral discs. That’s according to a 2017 study published in Nature Scientific Reports that evaluated nearly 80 participants. About two-thirds of those participants had been runners for at least five years, and the remaining one-third didn’t exercise. The researchers evaluated MRIs of all participants.

“What they found was that those in the running group, whether the participants ran over 30 miles or between 12 and 25 miles per week, they had more fluid and larger discs when compared to the non-exercisers,” Yang said.

Similar benefits were seen in those who walked at a brisk pace. The study doesn’t show that running will treat a disc problem, he noted, but it does show that running doesn’t worsen disc health.

Another study, this one from 2022 and published in Skeletal Radiology, showed that marathon running does not worsen spine health. Via MRI, researchers evaluated 28 adults without back pain who had registered for their first marathon. The participants underwent an MRI 16 weeks before their marathon and again two weeks after their race.

In one study “the MRI after the marathon showed no adverse effects on the lumbar spine, and these were people who ran roughly 500 miles over four months for their training.”

“What they saw was that the MRI after the marathon showed no adverse effects on the lumbar spine, and these were people who ran roughly 500 miles over four months for their training,” Yang said.

Yang cited other studies that show running can reduce the risk of joint osteoarthritis and the need for hip replacement.

Returning to physical activity

Riding a stationary recumbent bike can help people who haven’t exercised recently to get back into it, Yang said. Once people feel like they can do a little more, the elliptical is a good next step. Those who wish to can then ease their way back into running.

One caveat

Sometimes back pain crops up unexpectedly, meaning someone might have a sharp, sudden episode of back pain after twisting oddly while lifting something or doing another activity. Many such episodes of back pain will resolve in a few days. But if pain persists, see a specialist before returning to running, Yang said. In the meantime, gentle movement and stretching may help.

And as always, be sure to consult your physician before starting a new exercise routine.

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