Back to basics
By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer
Lower-back pain is one of the most common health problems among adults.
Whether a slight twinge or excruciating, debilitating pain, nearly everyone experiences lower-back problems at some time during their life. This is the first in a three-part series on exercises for lower-back pain. We will talk to medical and exercise professionals and offer three series of exercises over the next three Thursdays. There will also be 15 exercises, five each week, that can be done any time, anywhere, with no equipment.
Dr. Morris Mitsunaga, chief of orthopedics at The Queen's Medical Center, estimates lower-back pain is the second most common reason patients visit a doctor. The first is the common cold. "Back pain is such an epidemic," he said.
Most lower-back pain can be relieved by maintaining an exercise program that keeps the body active and stretched while avoiding positions and activities that may exacerbate the problem. Strong back, abdominal and leg muscles help support the spine, while stretching keeps muscles and other supporting tissues flexible and less prone to injury.
Among the causes of lower-back pain, according to Mitsunaga, are muscle strain, injury, arthritis, poor posture and a herniated disc causing a pinched nerve. "Ninety to 95 percent of people with low back pain have problems that get better with time," and will not require surgery, he said. "Most low back problems can be prevented with yoga, stretching or physical therapy." However, if lower-back pain becomes a chronic, debilitating problem, Mitsunaga stressed that what is needed is "correct rehabilitation, not narcotics." He recommends stretching, as well as low-impact exercises such as swimming, yoga and tai chi.
January can be the worst time for developing lower-back pain. It's the new year, and many people inexperienced with exercise are heading to the gym. They're watching the big, buff guys pump iron and following their lead. That can be a recipe for disaster. Those guys have spent countless hours, weeks, months and years in the gym and they know what their bodies can handle. Gym newbies seldom know their own limitations.
For many, if not most people, lower-back problems result from everyday misuse. Personal trainer Mike Tengan of The Honolulu Club thinks improper posture is the most common cause of lower-back pain. "Most people spend hours at their desks, and their posture is compromised because their body is pitted against gravity," he explained.
Right now, however, Tengan is seeing a lot of lower-back pain caused by injuries. "People are coming to the gym with all this energy, and the next thing you know, it's 'oh, my back hurts,' " he said.
We asked Tengan to provide five exercises that can strengthen the core and stretch the body to help with lower-back pain. These exercises can be done almost anywhere, without any equipment. Of course, any exercise that exacerbates the symptoms should not be performed. If lower-back pain becomes chronic (often defined as more than three months) and debilitating, Mitsunaga emphasized the importance of seeing a physician.