Lower back pain affects up to 80 percent of Americans and is one of the leading causes of missed work days in the United States. Chronic or acute back pain can make even the simplest movements, such as standing or walking, very difficult.
Fortunately, it is possible to remedy back pain through a combination of prevention and wellness exercises. Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) can help back pain sufferers regain their strength and learn how to manage their pain so that they can live productive and healthy lives.
“Lower back pain is the result of imbalances in one’s core, and physical therapy can help with assessing and improving on those core imbalances through various stretching techniques,” says Tamara Felegy, PTA program chair at Herzing University’s Minneapolis campus. “Many of these exercises can be completed at home, which makes it easier for patients to play an active role in their own recovery and healing.”
Here are some of the most common exercises a PTA would work on with a patient who is dealing with lower back pain:
1. Bird Dog
This is an easy isometric exercise that is gentle on the back. Starting from a hands-and-knees position, extend one leg back, then when your core feels stable, move your opposite arm forward. Focus on leveling your hips. This stretch will improve the strength in your core, as well as your overall stability. Holding the Bird Dog pose for too long can make it difficult to breathe normally, so it’s recommended that you do several reps at a time instead of holding the pose.
2. Table Top Press
In addition to preventing back pain, this exercise can strengthen your shoulders, arms and legs. Start by laying on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip-width apart. Then, place your hands behind you, breathe in and lift your hips. This will make your body form a “tabletop” position. Lower your hips and swing them backwards between your arms until your legs are straight. Breathe in and out three times while holding the position; then, return to the original tabletop position and repeat the process three more times.
Bridges can help relieve existing back pain, as well as strengthen your glutes and hamstrings. Lie on your back with your hands at your sides, bend your knees and flatten your feet on the floor. Then, raise your hips to form a straight line from your knees to shoulders. Lower your hips back down and repeat. You should strive to do two sets of ten repetitions in a work out session
Planks are a great way to strengthen your core while working various muscle groups all at the same time. This stretch is great for those who are beginners to muscle strengthening exercises. Lie down on your stomach and then push up so that your arms are extended fully and your body is off the ground. Hold your body stationary with your hands and feet in a straight line – almost as if you were about to do a push-up. While it may appear that this stretch is too easy to have distinct benefits, planks improve flexibility, endurance and strength.
5. Side Plank
Similarly, you can also do the side plank stretch. This stretch provides additional lumbar support that the standard plank does not. To do a side plank, lie on your side with your feet together and one arm propping your body up. Be sure to keep your head and neck straight while holding this pose with your hips up and off the ground. Switch sides and repeat this stretch to work both sides of your back.
Lack of exercise is one of the most common causes of back pain, and can make existing back pain even worse, notes Felegy. PTAs recommend that everyone get in the habit of practicing these exercises in order to build and maintain a healthy core.
In addition to these stretches, there are other lifestyle changes that can help prevent back pain. The first and most obvious one is to have good posture.
“Many of us are sitting for long periods of time either at school or at work, so it’s important to have the proper sitting posture for healthy spinal alignment,” Felegy says.
It’s also important to maintain a healthy weight to prevent back pain, since extra weight will add strain to the spinal column and back muscles.
“Practicing these exercises regularly, as well as implementing other healthy habits into your life, will help prevent back pain in the future and lead to overall better health,” says Felegy. “As a PTA, the most rewarding part of our job is being able to make a difference for our patients,” she continues. “When you see patients reach their goals, that’s a great feeling. You know that you’ve helped set them on the path to recovery so that they will be able to live their lives to the fullest.”
Demand for PTAs is on the rise, driven in part by the healthcare needs of an aging population. In fact, employment for PTAs is expected to increase by 31 percent through 2026, adding 27,400 new jobs. Read more about how much physical therapist assistants make and find the average in your state.
“People are living longer and have more active lives than ever before,” Felegy says. “PTAs play a significant role in helping promote the lifestyle and wellness decisions that allow others to stay healthy and fit, no matter their age.”