Chronic back pain is something many of us have, or will experience in our lifetime. With an estimated 49% of people in the UK each week and 65% each month being affected, according to the British Chiropractic Association (2018).
However, ‘back pain’ is an umbrella term which encompasses all types of back pain, so let’s explore the different types.
Types of Chronic Back Pain
Chronic back pain refers to back pain that persists for 3 months or longer. Unfortunately, the underlying cause of back pain can be difficult to diagnose, due to the number of complicated anatomical structures that make up the back. As a result, chronic back pain can originate from a number of different injuries; let’s take a quick look at some of the most common causes.
- Muscle / Ligament Strains: Perhaps the most common cause of back pain, a strain refers to the tearing of a muscle or ligament. Poor posture during lifting is a common cause and the pain is often localised to the location of the sprain. If adequate rest and rehab is not adhered to, pain may linger for several months and the area will remain weak, leading to a high chance of re-injury.
- Degenerative Disc Disease: As we age, the discs in our spine undergo wear and tear. Both genetics and varying life style choices play a deciding factor in why some people experience pain and others don’t. Pain may result from:
- Accumulation of minor injuries over many years, leading to slight tears in the outer wall of the spinal disks.
- The thinning of the spinal disks due to water loss, meaning they lose padding and their ability to shock absorb decreases.
- Herniated Disc: Also, related to the disks of the spine, a herniated disc refers to the inner portion of the disc rupturing the outer wall. Pain resulting from this injury can be quite varied, from pain and a numbing sensation on one side of your body, to a burning sensation localised to the injured area.
- Sciatica: Resulting from unwanted pressure on the sciatic nerve, and can often be a by-product of degenerative disc disease. The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back down the back of both legs, with pain usually originating from the lower back and spreading to the glutes, hip and legs.
Once diagnosed, it is time to work out a plan of action to get you back to 100%. There are many avenues you can go down for your rehab, some of which include: physiotherapy and chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, anti-inflammatory injections, corrective exercise and even surgery (in rarer cases and as a last resort once other methods have been utilised).
However, an often overlooked and super effective form of back pain rehab is swimming. Unlike other forms of rehab exercise, it is the only one that allows you to workout ‘weightless’, with the added benefit of hydrostatic pressure assisting increased blood flow to the muscles.
The Physical Health Benefits of Swimming
Swimming is one of the best exercises to perform for someone with back pain as it provides a non-weight baring environment. It takes away the gravitational force on your spine, allowing you to be weight less for the duration of time you are in the water. This provides the perfect opportunity to train your back muscles with zero pain and minimal risk of further injury.
Swimming is also a perfect low impact aerobic workout that allows you to work on your cardiovascular health, when other exercises such as running, rowing and even cycling are impossible without pain. As with all exercise, is it important that you remember to warm up and cool down, especially if you have an existing injury! Jumping straight into an intense swimming session without warming up first is likely to put you at risk of further injury.
3 Tips and Tricks when Swimming with Back Pain
1) Pull Drill: This drill involves the elimination of any leg movement, focusing only on arm movements to move through the water. This will take pressure off your back and allow you to stretch your back muscles.
2) Keep a Neutral Spine: The type of stroke and movement you can perform in the pool comes down to the underlying cause of your back pain. For example, performing the butterfly stroke forces you to arch your spine which puts pressure on the joints of the spine, leading to worse pain. On the other hand, hyperextension of the spine can put the muscles and ligaments of the back in a compromised position, increasing the chance of re-injury.
3) Water Aerobics: Maybe your injury is too severe to perform any sort of horizontal swimming motion, not to worry! Water aerobics, such as walking / jogging in the water allows you condition your core and back muscles without compromising positioning and is the perfect way to build up to the full strokes.
The Mental Benefits of Swimming
Chronic back pain is not only physically exhausting but mentally as well. Unlike pain in other areas of the body, pain in the back is very hard to avoid during day to day life. When even sitting, or lying still doesn’t relieve the pain, it can become very draining and have a negative effect on moral.
Swimming provides a welcome mental break, allowing you to take your mind of the pain for a short while. This is beneficial for your mental health and how you tackle your rehab going forward.
How to get Started at Bringing Swimming into your Life
So now we have established swimming to be of great mental and physical benefit to those with chronic back pain, how do you get started? Fortunately, pools are common place in almost every town and city, there is no excuse! But how do you find the motivation to take that first step?
1) Make it a social occasion: Going to the pool on your own may seem like a daunting experience, especially if you haven’t swum in a while. Find a group session at the local pool and go for it. Having people to work out with increases the chance you make it a lifestyle habit.
2) Swim first thing in the morning: Going to the pool in the morning is a sure-fire way to set up a happy and healthy day. You get to enjoy an empty pool and reap the physical and mental benefits of swimming.
Living with back pain can be an extremely physically and mentally draining experience, with seemingly no end in sight. However, don’t give up hope. Swimming may just provide that spark of hope and mental relief you need. Finding a friend or group class is the ideal kick start into the world of swimming to build your confidence and enjoyment.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. Get out there and try it for yourself and enjoy the benefits swimming has to offer your back pain.