Does too much exercise cause back pain?

By February 16, 2022 blog No Comments

Sometimes you wonder about scientists. Do they want their research to be understood? Or do they want to cloak it in mystery? One study, published quite a number of years ago (2009), sounds like the title of the latest instructions from a piece of drainage kit from Plumbers World: ‘Physical activity and low back pain: a U-shaped relation’ [1], The authors are assuming that the readers are not about to unblock their sink, but are actually epidemiologists with an enthusiasm for descriptions of graphs.What our Dutch researcher friends are attempting to get across is that if you look at a graph of the incidence of low back pain after physical activity you will see that it is U-shaped. According to their study of 3364 subjects, people who exercise minimally have a higher incidence of back pain, but so do people who engage in more strenuous exercise. Those doing moderate levels of exercise have the lowest levels of back pain.

Your spouse understands this intuitively when he says: ‘In a bit love, my back is playing up’ when you ask him for the third time to put the bins out. He thinks that he is engaging in strenuous exercise, whereas in reality he does almost no exercise. So, it’s little wonder that he gets back pain.

Our spouses all believe that their thinking is correct. But is it? A recent paper [2] suggests otherwise. These researchers, from Portsmouth University, studied 5802 people over 50yrs old, and found that the only level of exercise that reduced the incidence of musculo-skeletal pain was a high level of exercise.

So, it seems that you would be justified in informing your poor spouse that if, in addition to taking the bins out, perhaps he could also cut the grass and trim the hedge? He might get a bit less back pain!

Furthermore, the same recent study found that being overweight increased the risk of suffering from musculo-skeletal pain, as did poverty, and being female. There are plenty of societal issues for us to address.

I’m just off to put the bins out……..

btw…. these studies are all looking at groups of patients and seeing what is best ‘in general’. You cannot simply apply group statistics to an individual. There are, of course, individuals for whom doing high levels of exercise will cause more problems. So, get some individual advice if you are thinking about launching into a new physical exercise regime!

  1. Heneweer, H., L. Vanhees, and H.S. Picavet, Physical activity and low back pain: a U-shaped relation? Pain, 2009. 143(1-2): p. 21-5.

2. Niederstrasser, N.G. and N. Attridge, Associations between pain and physical activity among older adults. PLoS One, 2022. 17(1): p. e0263356.

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