Exercise could be the key to ending lower back pain

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Two years ago, Eleanor Gair struggled to sit in an armchair and get up due to severe lower back pain - now she's mostly pain free.

Two years ago, Eleanor Gair was battling lower back pain. It was painful for her to sit in an arm chair and a struggle to get up.

Already an active person – rowing, cycling and walking - Eleanor took up yoga, hoping a different type of exercise might ease the pain.

“I needed flexibility and thought it might help with the back pain but gradually the back pain got more annoying, I was taking Voltaren consistently,” Eleanor says.

Eleanor realized she needed specific treatment and having briefly studied as a physiotherapist she asked her GP for a referral to a physio clinic.

After hands on treatment to address the acute pain that she was experiencing, her physiotherapist encouraged exercise as the best way to treat her chronic back pain and counteract recurring problems.

Eleanor
Eleanor is now almost completely pain free. Photo: Supplied
Supplied

“An individualized program was designed for me and it was very specific to what I needed, using equipment and Pilates exercises I gradually increased my core strength,” she says.

Holly Brasher, owner and operator of the physio clinic Eleanor attended, says exercise plays a big role in the treatment for chronic lower back pain.

“We know that it reduces pain, disability and improves function. Lower back pain causes the muscles around the spine to stop working as well. The stabilizing muscles around the spine start to switch off and reduce in size, causing an increased load on the spine,” Holly says.

Holly says exercise is the only way to get those muscles working again.

“While we don’t know what the best type of exercise is yet, we do know that strengthening and resistance exercises can make changes to those muscles and get them working again.”

The challenge however with using exercise as a treatment for chronic lower back pain is compliance and cost.

“It involves energy and a commitment and that is our biggest challenge, motivating people to do it,” says Holly.

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Around 11 million Australians have one of eight major chronic conditions – that’s almost half the population. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has called chronic disease “the biggest health challenge that Australia faces”.
Around 11 million Australians have one of eight major chronic conditions – that’s almost half the population. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has called chronic disease “the biggest health challenge that Australia faces”.

Individualized and targeted exercise prescribed by an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist can be expensive.

People that have chronic conditions are eligible for a referral under Medicare to five sessions with a physiotherapist. But Holly says that is not adequate to properly address concerns.

“Five sessions would allow for an individualized plan to be developed but then the patient would need to complete the exercises at home, without supervision.”

After 18 months of attending supervised classes and sticking with the strengthening exercises, Eleanor is mostly pain free.

“I still have the occasional niggle but I don’t take any medication and can get up from my armchair without any pain. I’m still cycling and I’ve taken up golf and am planning a walk in the Pyrenees in September.”

Chronic conditions

  • Arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions are classified as chronic when they are persistent and ongoing. These types of conditions affect the bones, muscles and joints. 
  • Chronic musculoskeletal conditions are very common in Australia. In 2014-15, 6.9 million Australians had arthritis or a musculoskeletal condition.
  • Of the 6.9 million Australians with a chronic musculoskeletal condition, 3.7 million reported suffering from lower back pain – the most common condition. 
  • Of the Australians that reported lower back pain in 2014-15, 65% also had at least one other chronic condition. 
  • The number of Australians reporting more than one chronic condition increases with age. For arthritis, from 74% (aged 45–64) to 86% (aged 65 and over). For lower back pain, it affects 49% (aged 0–44) to 89% (aged 65 and over).

Holly Brasher is the National Chairperson of the Sports and Exercise Physiotherapy group of the Australian Physiotherapy Association.

Source SBS Insight