Exercise Best Prevention for Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Regular exercise significantly reduces the risk of developing low back pain, according to new research that found other therapies such as ergonomics, back belts and shoe inserts do little to prevent it. Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability.

Researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia analyzed nearly two dozen back pain studies involving over 30,000 people to see which therapy works best in preventing low back pain. Their study, reported in JAMA Internal Medicine, found “moderate quality evidence” that exercise or a combination of exercise and education work best.

“For exercise to remain protective against future LBP (low back pain), it is likely that ongoing exercise is required. Prevention programs focusing on long-term behavior change in exercise habits seem to be important,” wrote lead author Daniel Steffens, PhD, of the University of Sydney. “The available evidence suggests that education alone, back belts, shoe insoles, and ergonomics do not prevent LBP.”

Over 80 percent of us suffer acute low back pain at least once in our lives, and about half will experience a recurrence within one year.  

The researchers estimate that exercise results in a 35 percent reduced risk of developing low back pain within a year; while exercise and education reduces the risk by 45 percent.

“If a medication or injection were available that reduced LBP recurrence by such an amount, we would be reading the marketing materials in our journals and viewing them on television. However, formal exercise instruction after an episode of LBP is uncommonly prescribed by physicians,” wrote Timothy Carey, MD, and Janet Freburger, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a commentary also published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“This pattern is, unfortunately, similar to other musculoskeletal problems in which effective but lower-technology and often lower reimbursed activities are underused. In one study, fewer than half of the patients with chronic LBP or neck pain who were surveyed received exercise instruction despite a good evidence base for its effectiveness.”

Carey and Freburger said physicians and professional societies need to start working together to establish exercise guidelines for low back pain, and health insurance companies “will need to be convinced” about the benefits of exercise for them to start covering it. 

A 2015 study by BMC Health Services Research found that early physical therapy for low back pain significantly lowers healthcare costs by reducing the use of expensive treatments such as spinal surgery, injections, imaging and pain medication.