Let your Pain Float Away: Swimming to Reduce Lower Back Pain

When you live with back pain, simple tasks become difficult, quick errands require more time, and taking road trips with your family is a challenge. From sitting on planes, trains and automobiles for hours at a time to lugging heavy suitcases from city to city, travelling can be irritating to both your stress levels and to back pain. One of the best ways you can keep your back healthy and strong over the summer is by maintaining an aerobic exercise routine. And one of the best forms of aerobic exercise is swimming. 

In nearly every consultation that comes into my office for low back pain, I will review forms of exercise that can be used to reduce pain. The number one exercise I always recommend is swimming. There are multiple reasons why swimming is favored by most physicians as one of the best forms of exercise: First, because your body is floating on water, there are very low impact forces being transmitted through your body. Therefore, virtually no pressure is placed on the spine, reducing the chances of re-injury. Second, swimming is a form of active stretching; using proper technique will ensure full range of motion for your limbs and trunk. Third, the water provides just enough resistance to create sustained aerobic conditioning, which will allow a person to achieve a good workout while continuing rehabilitation. In addition to all these, there are the general benefits of aerobic exercise for pain: increased release of natural pain relieving chemicals in your body, improved blood flow, increased flexibility, improved sleep and mood, etc.

However, while swimming can be a great form of exercise, it can also be an easy way for people to re-injure themselves when being too aggressive or using poor technique. Here are a few simple tips to keep you safe while swimming:

  • Consider side strokes or backstroke as an alternative to front strokes, as these will reduce stress on the spine
  • During front strokes, roll your body and keep your chin tucked in when taking breaths instead of jerking your head backwards
  • Use a snorkel while swimming to reduce stress to the neck and low back with breathing
  • Consider the use of flotation devices to maintain proper form when swimming
  • Maintain smooth, even strokes throughout to keep your body properly afloat
  • If your doctor has diagnosed you with a disc injury, avoid freestyle stroke as this will create excessive stress across the disc
  • If your doctor has diagnosed you with pain coming from the small joints in the spine (facet joints), avoid the breaststroke, as this will place more pressure through the joints

Perhaps you don’t enjoy swimming. That’s ok, as just walking in the pool can have significant effects towards improving your pain. In a 2009 study published in Spine, Turkish researchers found that patients with chronic low back pain benefited more from aquatic-based exercise than land-based therapy. In the end, any form of exercise will likely provide some relief of pain, whether it is swimming, cycling, elliptical machine use, etc. But with the heat upon us and the beach calling, why not take a dip, cool off and swim away from your pain.

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