The Bad Back Guy: Back Pain and Sciatica, Swiss Study Supports Exercise

by coachz on March 7, 2009

Swiss researchers found that exercise, done properly and under supervision, helps reduce back pain and sciatica, particularly low-back pain.

A Swiss study, conducted in December 1999, noted that an exercise program consisting of low-impact aerobics may be quite effective in reducing back pain, particularly pain affecting the lower back. The study maintained that low impact aerobics may indeed offer the back pain and sciatica sufferer a viable alternative to physical therapy and weight training alone, that adding low impact aerobics to an exercise and therapy program significantly reduced pain levels in less than three months or less. The study, published in the journal Spine, noted that low impact exercise, like aerobics, can reduce or eliminate chronic low-back pain as effectively as an exercise program of exercise machines, weight lifting, and physical therapy, alone. According to the research findings, the most impressive data suggested that a combination of the three modalities, or treatments, administered in concert, proved to be equally effective in significantly reducing or even eliminating not only pain frequency, but its intensity and the disabling effects leading to an inability to perform even the most rudimentary tasks associated with daily living.

The research was conducted by Anne F. Mannion, Ph.D., Müntener M, Taimela S, and Dvorak J. from the University of Zurich-Irchel and the Schulthess Clinic, Zurich, Switzerland. The researchers enrolled 132 chronic back pain sufferers, dividing them in to three groups: one group was assigned to a sub-grouping of two or three patients, their treatment modality was lifting weights for an hour; the second group was assigned traditional physical therapy, one-half hour in duration; and, the third group of subjects was enrolled in a low impact aerobics program, an hour in length. All three groups met for a period of three months, twice a week. The pain level of each patient was scaled at the beginning of treatment and then assessed again after three months.

After the test period, Dr. Mannion and her fellow researchers discovered a quantitative and qualitative difference in the pain experienced by all three treatment groups. In other words, the patients not only had less pain overall but they had an improved standard of living, as related to the ability to involve themselves in the day-to-day functions of life. Interestingly, it was discovered that no significant difference between the different treatment modalities existed, all three groups achieved virtually the same level of pain relief. The back pain sufferers participating in the study noted not only a lessening of overall pain but they also observed that there were now periods when pain was not evident at all, periods when they were pain free. Ultimately, it must be recognized that the back pain patients experienced pain less often, and to a lessor degree, then before the study commenced.

Dr. Charles Edwards, a physician and professor of surgery at Baltimore’s, University of Maryland School of Medicine, noted that both in his personal life and his professional dealings with patients, he had found the use of exercise to be a significant factor in reducing and/or relieving lower back pain. Edwards went on to maintain that because the researchers had shown comparable findings among and between these very different modalities, that the research would make a significant contribution to the literature supporting the use of exercise as a means of treating low back pain and sciatica.

Edwards went on to conclude that it may be said that exercise counters the effects or, as he put it, the vicious cycle, of sedentary life associated with a decrease in activity. The decreased activity associated with back pain and sciatica leads to weakness, stiffness, and even atrophy (shrinking and/or loss of muscle tissue when not used) in chronic back pain and sciatica sufferers. The loss of muscle tone and tissue is followed by a decrease in the production of endorphins (naturally produced opiates or pain killers in the body), this leads to increased pain sensitivity. The decrease in endorphins and the increased pain sensitivity of chronic back pain and sciatica sufferers, is almost certainly a factor in prescription pain medication abuse, as chronic back pain sufferers attempt to alleviate their suffering. Edwards concludes by noting that this is a very real physical pattern that develops, and exercise helps to restore and preserve normal physiology or bodily functions, in chronic pain sufferers. I would argue that it is also, and equally, a psychological pattern, one that contributes to the well-being of the back pain and sciatica sufferer when he or she is actively engaged in an exercise program.

In conclusion, the following findings are informative: one, in working with and treating patients displaying symptoms of chronic lower back pain and sciatica, low impact aerobics is just as effective a treatment modality as exercising with machines, lifting weights or even physical therapy; second, after 3 consecutive months in one of the three test groups, back pain sufferers using one of the three treatment strategies reported a significant overall reduction in low back pain and sciatica; and finally, the researchers involved in the study, and others interviewed, all suggest that exercise breaks the vicious cycle of a sedentary lifestyle, decreased activity, that leads to stiff muscles, weakness, atrophy and an increased sensitivity to back pain and sciatica.; Spine. 1999 Dec 1;24(23):2435-48;


John P. J. Zajaros, Sr.
Skype: johnzajaris

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