Lower back pain while walking is a common problem for fitness walkers, but usually can be corrected with treatment and strengthening exercises. Pain in your lower back makes it hard to maintain proper walking posture, which can stop you from hitting your recommended activity level and also put you at risk of further injury. Strengthening your back is critical even if you aren’t currently experiencing back pain. As high as 70% of people in industrialized countries will experience lower back pain in their lifetimes, according to the WHO.
We’ll be covering common underlying injuries that can cause back pain, treatment options for minor pain, plus how to strengthen your back so that pain doesn’t return!
Lower Back Pain is Very Common
Lower back pain, at least on an occasional basis, is a very common injury. The American Chiropractic Association estimates that one half of working Americans report back pain every year, resulting in up to 264 million lost days of work yearly. Chronic lower back pain is less common but still far from rare. The NIH estimates that 4.2% of people aged 24-39 and 19.6% of people aged 20-59 experienced chronic lower back pain. If your back hurts from walking – you’re not alone.
Common Causes of Lower Back Pain
Pain in your lower back can be caused by a variety of different injuries and conditions. If your pain is severe, persistent, or sudden then it’s important to get checked out by a doctor to determine what is causing the problem. Here are several common reasons for lower back pain.
- Muscle Strains: A muscle sprain, sometimes called a “pulled muscle,” is when your muscle fibers tear. This usually either happens from a longer-term overuse injury (such as walking with bad posture for months or years) or a sudden overstretching (such as lifting something too heavy with bad form). Mild back strains usually heal on their own simply by resting, but a serious tear could require physical therapy or in extreme cases surgery to correct the torn muscle.
- Lumbar Sprains: Sprains are injuries to ligaments or tendons that connect muscles and joints together. People usually think of ankle sprains, but the connecting tissue that connects your lumbar vertebrae can also be injured. Unlike ankle sprains, with a sprained back it may not be as obvious what has happened and where specifically the back pain is coming from. Like strains, lumbar strains can often heal from simple rest. More serious pain should be checked out to test for more serious injuries like disk problems.
- Hyperlordosis: Hyperlordosis is an abnormal curvature of your spine, which can be caused by several factors including chronic bad posture, lack of exercise or in some cases obesity. Hyperlordosis can often be treated and cured by performing back strengthening exercises, as well as practicing good posture to prevent a recurrence. Once the condition improves, your back pain should be reduced.
- Disk injury or herniated disk: Your spine is composed of the vertebra, which are separated by soft disks that act as shock absorbers. If these disks become damaged or wear out because of age, exertion or poor posture, they can cause pain in your back. A herniated disk is when parts of the disk rupture, or push through a tear in the surrounding tissue. Disk injuries are serious injuries that can become worse and more debilitating over time. If you suspect a disk injury, you should see a doctor right away for tests. More mild cases can be treated with physical therapy and strengthening exercises, but serious cases may require surgery.
- Spinal Stenosis: In older people, the spinal canal can begin to narrow and pinch nerves. This tightness can create pain or tingling in your back and other areas of your body. Spinal stenosis is not curable, but the pain can be relieved with anti-inflammatory medications. Spinal stenosis can also lead to sciatica, which is a sharp pain that results from a pinched sciatic nerve. There are certain stretches that can relieve sciatica.
- Sciatica: Sciatica is pain that usually branches out from the spine to the buttocks and legs through the sciatic nerve. A herniated disk, spinal stenosis or other spine injuries can pinch the sciatic nerve which then causes pain down the leg. Many cases of sciatica go away on their own, but serious cases may require surgery. It’s important to get a doctor’s diagnosis to determine what is causing back pain from sciatica to determine how best to treat it.
Walking Can Actually Help Lower Back Pain!
Walking can actually help to ease back pain symptoms and strengthen your back! Walking helps to strengthen your back muscles, which can help you maintain proper posture and keep your spine in alignment. This assumes, of course, that you’re walking with good posture. As you walk more and more with good posture, you’ll build up your back muscles and find good posture is easier to maintain.
Walking also keeps your spine flexible and increases circulation in your back muscles. Exercise can keep your bones strong as well. A daily walking habit can help you lose a bit of weight as well, which can help to ease pressure on your spine.
How’s Your Walking Posture?
One of the main causes of regular, mild lower back pain is poor walking posture. When your spine is out of alignment as you walk, your muscles, ligaments, and vertebra are forced into unnatural positions and movements. This increases the chance of overuse injuries, lumbar problems, and even more serious back issues over time.
If you are walking with pain in your lower back, it’s a good idea to check your walking posture. Simply ensuring that you always walk with the correct walking posture can relieve a lot of aches and pains in your lower back. If you find maintaining good posture during your walks is a bit of a back workout for you, it could be a sign that you need to strengthen your back muscles. Walking (with proper posture) can help strengthen your back muscles and act as a simple back exercise that can ease lower back pain. Make sure to maintain proper posture during your entire walk, and slow down or stop if your posture slips. Work on increasing the time you’re able to walk in good posture, rather than trying to get more steps with poor posture. Even if this results in taking fewer steps temporarily, your lower back pain should improve and you’ll eventually be able to walk longer and get more steps.
Here are some tips for proper walking posture. Check our piece for more details!
- Stand up straight. If an imaginary string were pulled up from the top of your head, you’d feel tall, neither leaning forward or backward.
- Keep your chin parallel to the ground, with your gaze will be about 20 feet in front of you. Resist the urge to stare at the ground as you walk, which can lead to slumped posture and back issues.
- Keep your back straight, and do not arch it forward or backward.
- Point your toes forward.
- Engage your core muscles by sucking in your stomach a little bit.
- Use natural arm motion as you walk with your shoulders relaxed.
What’s Contributing to Your Back Pain?
There may be other factors that are causing your poor posture or back issues that you’ll need to address to correct the underlying issue.
Injuries in Other Parts of Your Body
If you’re dealing with a knee injury, hip injury or chronic foot pain, among other injuries, that could be causing poor posture as you walk. Often injuries in one area cause other parts of your body to overcompensate for the injured body part, leading to additional pain and injuries. Working to heal or at least mitigate the pain from that other injury may improve your walking gait, which can lessen the pain in your lower back.
Lighten Your Load
Carrying a heavy backpack or purse, carrying heavy loads at work, or lifting weights with poor form can all lead to strain and stress on your back. A heavy backpack is probably unlikely to cause a sudden twist or strain in your lower back, but it can cause problems in two ways. Heavy loads can break your posture, causing you to slump forward and look towards the ground. Alternatively, they can cause pain in your shoulders, causing you to change your walking form to relieve the pain. Either way, you may be putting your lower back and lumbar region in danger of injury.
Lifting heavy things adds another danger – a sudden strain or acute injury. If you do need to lift heavy packages, suitcases or grocery bags, try to lift with your legs rather than your back. Lift the object with a straight back, ideally with your back pointed vertically rather than bent over at a 90-degree angle. For ideas, try watching a video on proper squat or deadlift form. You don’t need to actually perform these exercises, but understanding how athletes lift extremely heavy weights safely can help you lift regular things safely in your daily life.
Replace Your Shoes & Gear
The wrong walking shoes can hurt your feet and damage your posture, which can result in back injuries over time. Try to find comfortable walking shoes that allow you to walk long distances relatively pain-free. If you don’t have walking shoes available, try to at least walk in running or other athletic shoes rather than dress shoes or heels. Change shoes at the office or job site if you need to, but protect your back during your commute.
Consider Losing a Few Pounds
Obesity can be a factor in back injuries. Being heavier means that your muscles and joints need to work harder to move you around, and being heavy can throw your spine out of alignment. Extra weight in the stomach can pull your spine forward, so getting active, losing a few pounds and reducing belly fat can help relieve minor back pain in many cases. Maintaining a healthy weight is important for other reasons as well, but you can use your back pain as motivation to achieve your goals. If back pain is really making it hard to exercise, remember that much of your success in losing weight comes down to what you eat, so eat healthier and you’ll see progress over time.
Simple Treatments for Lower Back Pain
The best thing you can do for back pain is to listen to what your body is telling you. Do you walk with bad posture? Take some steps to fix your posture. Does your back feel ok for the first half of your long walks, but then starts to hurt as time goes on? Your posture could be failing over time, or you may need to strengthen your back or take several shorter walks instead. Does your back start to hurt after a few days of walking? You may be overtraining – not getting enough sleep or taking enough rest days.
If your back pain is severe, you should see a doctor right away. While minor back pain may go away on its own, even minor soreness could be the first sign of a serious injury or long-term condition. The earlier that your doctor can diagnose and treat your issue, the easier it will be to treat. Your doctor can also give you specific treatments for your specific issue.
Treatments for Minor Back Pain
Minor aches, pains, and strains can often be cured by simple rest. You may want to take a look at your mattress if you’re experiencing back pain after waking – a good sleep cures a lot of issues! Here are some other potential treatments:
- Ice or heat: Both ice packs and heat packs can give temporary relief to back pain. There is an eternal debate amongst doctors and therapists about heat vs ice, but you can try both and see which works better for you. Make sure that you don’t leave either an ice or heat pack on for too long as both cold and heat can cause burns if left on too long.
- Massage: Back massage can relieve temporary pain, but an untrained or unlicensed masseuse can actually make things worse. Try to find a physical therapist or trained masseuse to reduce the risk that they’ll make things worse.
- Stretching: Stretching keeps you flexible, so it’s a great way to begin and end each walking session. You can try these Pacer-recommended walking warmup stretches, or you can also check out other back-specific stretches like these.
- OTC Pain relief medication: Pain medication like aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can temporarily relieve pain. They will not cure the underlying symptoms, however, and should only be used sparingly. Most OTC pain medicines can actually damage your body if used long term, so only use these as a last resort and see your doctor if you need to use them more than rarely.
Ways to Strengthen Your Lower Back
Looking for ways to keep your lower back limber and pain-free? There are many exercises designed to do just that. When doing back stretches or weight-bearing back exercises, make sure to go slowly and use perfect form. If you’re not sure how to perform them, try to find a trainer or ask your doctor for tips. Doing back exercises incorrectly, especially if you’re lifting weights, can cause back injuries.
Back stretches and exercises:
For basic back stretches, try these lower back rotational stretches and seated lower back rotational stretches from this list on Medical News Today. Finding a gentle yoga class is a great way to both increase your flexibility and strengthen your back. If you have a preexisting back injury, it’s important that you perform the moves properly. Look for a beginner’s class and make sure to tell the instructor about your injury. Good instructors will help you work around your back pain and gradually get more flexible over time.
Strengthening your core can help improve your posture and mitigate lower back pain. Your abs and supporting muscles can help you maintain proper walking posture longer. Core strength and flexibility can also help prevent core or back injuries from lifting and twisting in your daily life. Core and back exercises (like these from Self.com) can help you maintain your walking posture, as well as strengthen the muscles around your back.
Consider using a back brace to relieve lower back pain and also prevent future back pain. A brace supports your back so you are better able to move. It can also help improve your posture. Most braces are less than $50 and can be found at many stores.
Suffering from lower back pain too often leads people to stop their walking routine. However, inactivity is one of the worst things you can do for your back! Try to remain active, using simple treatments to ease the pain, and keep working toward better posture and a strong body
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