Discovering Lower Back Pain Caused by RunningBy Nigel Chua
Running is considered a form of intense physical activity, which can provide various health benefits such as improved spine health, cardiovascular fitness, increased calorie burn, and enhanced mood. However, running can also pose a risk of low back pain for runners, especially when not done properly or done while having back injuries.
In this article, we will explore the most common causes of back pain after running and provide practical tips on how to reduce pain and when to seek medical attention.
Most Common Causes of Back Pain After Running
The occurrence of low back pain among adults in Singapore is substantial, with as many as 80% affected. Low back pain is a common complaint among runners. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including muscle strain, muscle imbalance, facet joint irritation, sacroiliac joint pain, intervertebral disc issues, and nerve problems.
Muscles play a crucial role in running, and when they are not properly conditioned or stretched, they can become a source of pain. Overuse or sudden excessive exertion can lead to muscle strain, resulting in lower back pain. This can be particularly common in runners who neglect strengthening exercises or fail to warm up properly before a run.
Muscle-related pain is felt on one side of the spine and can cause muscle spasms. Here are two examples of such:
Muscle Strain: Muscle strain occurs when all the muscles in the lower back are stretched or torn. This can happen due to a sudden forceful movement or repetitive motion, such as running. Poor running form, inadequate core strength, and improper footwear can contribute to muscle strain.
Muscle Imbalance: Muscle imbalances occur when certain muscles are stronger or weaker than their opposing muscles. This can lead to abnormal movement patterns and increased stress on the lower back. Runners who neglect strength training exercises or only focus on specific muscle groups are more susceptible to muscle imbalances.
Facet joints are small joints located between the vertebrae in the spine. They provide stability and allow for smooth movement. However, repetitive stress or improper movement can irritate these joints, leading to lower back pain. Runners who frequently run on uneven surfaces or engage in activities that involve repetitive twisting or bending movements are more prone to facet joint irritation.
The sacroiliac (SI) joints connect the sacrum (the triangular bone at the bottom of the spine) to the pelvis. They are responsible for transferring the forces between the upper body and the legs during running. When these joints become inflamed or irritated, they can cause pain in the lower back. Runners who have weak gluteal muscles or imbalances in their gait are more likely to experience sacroiliac joint pain.
The intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae in the spine. They can degenerate over time or become herniated due to excessive strain or trauma. Runners who frequently engage in high-impact activities or have poor posture are more susceptible to disc-related or discogenic pain. This pain worsens when bending forward and shoots down the legs.
One example of a condition that causes discogenic pain is a herniated disc. A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, occurs when the soft inner portion of a spinal disc pushes through the tough outer layer. This condition can cause low back pain due to various reasons, including nerve compression, restricted movement, and degenerative changes.
Nerve-related back pain can occur when the nerves in the lower back become compressed or irritated. This can result from conditions such as sciatica or lumbar radiculopathy. Runners who have poor running form, weak core muscles, or a history of spinal injuries are more prone to nerve-related pain.
Ways to Reduce Pain After Running
Now that we have explored the most common causes of lower back pain from running, let's discuss practical ways to reduce pain and prevent future episodes.
Do Warm-Up and Gentle Stretches
Many runners tend to neglect doing warm-ups and stretches, especially when space and time are limited. However, warm-ups and stretches should not be neglected by runners as they contribute to injury prevention and improved performance.
Before every run, it is essential to warm up your muscles and prepare them for the activity ahead. Start with a few minutes of light aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking or jogging, followed by gentle stretches that target the major muscle groups in your lower limbs. Dynamic stretches, such as leg swings and hip circles, can be particularly beneficial for runners.
Proper hydration is crucial for maintaining optimal muscle function and preventing muscle cramps, which can contribute to lower back pain. Make sure to drink an adequate amount of water before, during, and after your runs.
Aim to consume at least 8 to 10 glasses of water per day, and consider replenishing electrolytes through sports drinks or electrolyte supplements if you are running for extended periods or in hot weather.
Overtraining can lead to muscle fatigue, weakened immune function, and increased risk of injuries, including lower back pain. It's important to listen to your body and allow for adequate rest and recovery between runs.
Gradually increase your mileage and intensity to prevent sudden spikes in activity that can overload your muscles and joints. Incorporate rest days into your training schedule and consider cross-training activities, such as swimming or cycling, to give your body a break from repetitive impact.
Check Your Running Form
Poor running form can put excessive stress on your lower back and contribute to pain and injuries. Pay attention to your posture while running, ensuring that your head is aligned with your spine and your shoulders are relaxed.
Avoid excessive forward leaning or backward arching of your back. Shorten your stride and aim for a midfoot or forefoot strike, as landing on your heels can cause excessive impact and strain on your lower back.
If you are unsure about your running form, consider consulting a running coach or physical therapist for a gait analysis.
Consider also investing in the proper footwear for running, as using improper or worn-out running shoes could also contribute to low back pain after running due to increased stress, pressure, and discomfort to your legs and feet.
Take Over-the-Counter Pain Medications
Nonprescription pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen, which are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can be effective in relieving acute lower back pain after running. However, it's important to use these medications as directed and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any underlying medical conditions or are taking other medications.
NSAIDs should not be used as a long-term solution to become pain-free, but rather as a temporary measure to manage pain while addressing the underlying causes and other symptoms.
Apply a Heating Pad
Applying heat to the lower back can help relax muscles and alleviate pain. Use a heating pad or a hot water bottle and apply it to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day. Make sure to protect your skin by placing a cloth between the heating pad and your skin. Heat therapy can improve blood flow, reduce muscle tension, and promote relaxation, providing temporary relief from lower back pain.
Seek Physical Therapy Sessions
If you are experiencing persistent or recurrent lower back pain from running, it may be beneficial to seek the guidance of a physical therapist.
A physical therapist can assess your running mechanics, identify muscle imbalances or weaknesses, and create a personalized exercise program to address your specific needs. They may incorporate techniques such as manual therapy, stretching, and strengthening exercises to relieve pain, improve mobility, and prevent future injuries.
Attend Physiotherapy Sessions
Lower back pain physiotherapy can be another effective option.
A physiotherapist such as our highly qualified ones at Phoenix Rehab can evaluate your condition, provide hands-on treatments such as massage or joint mobilization, and guide you through exercises and stretches to alleviate pain and improve function. They may also use modalities like ultrasound or electrical stimulation to promote healing and reduce inflammation.
Back physiotherapy in Singapore can help you address the root causes of your lower back pain and develop strategies to prevent future episodes.
When to See a Doctor
While most cases of lower back pain from running can be managed with self-care strategies, there are instances when it is necessary to consult a healthcare professional. You should seek medical attention if:
Your pain persists for more than a few weeks or worsens despite conservative treatments.
You experience pain that radiates down your leg or causes numbness or weakness in your foot.
You have difficulty controlling your bladder or bowel function.
You have a history of spinal fractures, tumours, or infections.
Your pain is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, fever, or night sweats.
In these situations, a doctor can perform a thorough evaluation, order diagnostic tests if needed, and recommend appropriate treatment options based on your specific condition.
Lower back pain from running can be frustrating and debilitating, but with the right approach, it's often manageable and preventable. By understanding the common causes of back pain after running and implementing strategies to reduce pain and improve running mechanics, you can continue to enjoy the many benefits of running while minimizing the risk of injury. Remember to listen to your body, prioritize proper warm-up and stretching, and seek professional guidance when needed.