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Exercise Helps Reduce Lower-Back Pain

By Elizabeth Tracey , MS
WebMD Feature

Jan. 4, 2000 (Baltimore) -- Low-impact aerobics can reduce chronic low-back pain just as effectively as physical therapy or an exercise program of weight lifting and exercise machines, according to a Swiss study published in the December issue of the journal Spine. "The main finding of the current study was that the three treatments administered ? proved to be equally efficacious in their ability to reduce pain intensity, pain frequency, and disability in tasks of daily living immediately after therapy," report the researchers from the Schulthess Clinic and the University of Zurich-Irchel, both in Zurich, Switzerland.

"Both personally and in the treatment of my patients, I have found exercise a significant factor in [relieving] low-back pain," says Charles Edwards, MD. "Because these authors have shown comparable results from different exercise therapies, I think this is a significant contribution" to literature supporting exercise for treating low-back pain. The results also tell health care professionals that the cost, time, and aggravation associated with some treatment options must be justified by showing that they are superior, according to Edwards, who is a professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

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Lead study researcher Anne F. Mannion, PhD, and colleagues assigned 132 patients with chronic low-back pain to one of three treatment groups: traditional physiotherapy involving individual half-hour sessions with a physical therapist; the David Back Clinic program, which patients attended in groups of two or three and used weights for about an hour; and a 1-hour session of low-impact aerobics. All patients were required to attend therapy twice a week for 3 months.

Pain levels were assessed at the beginning of the study and after 3 months of therapy. The researchers found that therapy significantly reduced both the greatest levels and the average levels of pain after therapy, as compared with the pre-therapy values. And no significant differences were found among the three treatment groups. The average response reported by the study patients was 3.6 on a scale of 1 to 5 (1=much worse, 3=unchanged, 5=much better). The study participants also reported that they experienced pain much less often after therapy than before.

"It appears to me that ? exercise counters the vicious cycle of decreased activity leading to weakness and stiffness, followed by the decreased production of endorphins and increased pain sensitivity," Edwards tells WebMD. "I think this is a true physical pattern that develops, and exercise helps to preserve normal physiology."

Vital Information:

  • In treating patients with chronic low-back pain, low-impact aerobics is just as effective as physical therapy or a program of weight lifting and exercise machines.
  • After 3 months of therapy, patients in all three treatment groups reported a significant reduction in pain.
  • Researchers say that exercise breaks the cycle of decreased activity that leads to weakness, stiffness, and increased sensitivity to pain.

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