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Effective Exercises for Low Back Pain

by Christina Landry, PA-C


As the first of the year is upon us, most people make healthy resolutions including weight loss and exercise. For those suffering with low back pain it can be difficult to find a program that won’t aggravate their pain or discomfort.

Many factors can contribute to low back pain including weak muscle strength and endurance. Other problems that can contribute to low back pain include degenerative disc disease and arthritis. For most patients pain related to wear and tear on the disc is usually aggravated with bending forward, and arthritic pain is usually worse with leaning backwards. For this reason some patients find it hard to find an exercise program to strengthen abdominal muscles without aggravating symptoms. In this situation isometric abdominal exercises may be of benefit. Isometric exercises are those that work without using range of motion. This can be done through holding a contraction of a muscle for a period of time without the lengthening or shortening of a muscle. The time to hold a contraction of a muscle can be as short as five seconds for a beginner and 60 seconds for the more experienced patient. Here are a few examples of isometric exercises that are easy to do in the convenience of your own home:

  1. Isometric Abdominal Exercise: Imagine pulling your belly button toward your spine with a string. This exercise is simple and can be done in various positions, including sitting, standing and lying down.
  2. Bridge: This is an exercise that strengthens many different muscles at the same time including your lower back muscles, buttock and abdominal muscles. Lay on your back with your knees bent. In this position, tighten your abdominals by doing the isometric abdominal exercise first. Then lift your hips from the floor, and hold this position for five seconds. Gradually work your way up, holding the exercise longer, until you can hold the bridge for one to three minutes.
  3. Lower Abdominal Isometrics: Lie on your back with your knees bent up and tighten your abdominals in the isometric abdominal exercise. In this position lift one knee, and then lift the other knee to the same position and hold that position for five seconds. Then, slowly lower one knee and then the other back to the ground. One way you’ll know you’re not ready for this exercise is if your back arches when you lift your second knee.
  4. Planks: The plank is the most well-known isometric abdominal exercise and is used in both yoga and Pilates workouts. To perform the Plank, kneel on all fours and rest your forearms on the floor. Walk your legs back so that your weight is supported on your forearms and on the ball of your feet only. Make sure your heels, hips and shoulders form a straight line. Hold this position for the desired duration. Do not allow your hips to drop toward the floor as this places undue strain on your lower back.
  5. Side Planks: Side planks target your abdominals and core muscles. Lie on your side with your legs straight. Rest your elbow on the floor directly underneath your shoulder. Lift your hips off the floor so that your weight is supported on your arm and sides of your feet only. Hold this position for the desired duration.

Avoid holding your breath when performing isometric exercises which can cause an elevation in blood pressure. Start out by holding the contraction or doing the exercise for short periods of time (5 -10 seconds) then increase the time as you feel more comfortable with the exercise. Of course each patient has a different type of pain and a different diagnosis. If you have questions about starting any of these exercises discuss them with your health professional first. If you experience severe pain while performing these exercises, discontinue and contact your physician or health care professional.