Are Core Exercises for Lower Back Pain Effective? - Step To Health

Are Core Exercises for Lower Back Pain Effective?

Core exercises have become popular as a therapeutic aid against lower back pain. However, it's a subject that continues to cause controversy. Are they really effective?
Are Core Exercises for Lower Back Pain Effective?

Last update: 24 October, 2021

Core exercises have become popular as a therapeutic option in the case of lower back pain. Although there are some studies that support their effects in alleviating this ailment, there’s still no solid evidence to consider them a first-choice option.

To begin with, we should point out that, in a country like Spain alone, almost 50% of adults over 20 years of age suffer or will suffer lower back pain. It’s so common that it’s estimated that 9 out of 10 people worldwide will have at least one episode of this ailment in their lifetime.

However, among the many ways of dealing with it, one of the most well-known is the practice of exercise. Physicians often recommend physical therapy sessions and moderate physical activity to help relieve pain. Some suggest that core exercises are the most effective. How true is this? In the following article, we’ll look at the facts.

What’s the core?

The core is a group of muscles that function as a corset for the body. It refers to the “center” or “nucleus” of our bodies. In general, its functions include the following:

  • Protecting our organs
  • Participating in the effort we make when coughing and sneezing
  • Intervening in urination and defecation
  • Participating in childbirth
  • Helping to move the spine
A woman with a toned abdomen.
The muscles that make up the core play an important role in the stability of the body.

At this time, there’s no complete agreement among experts regarding which muscles make up the core. However, most professionals agree that they include the following:

  • The diaphragm
  • The abdominals
  • The obliques
  • The gluteal muscles
  • The paravertebrals
  • The pelvic floor

Likewise, some suggest that they also include the quadratus lumborum and some cervical muscles.

Core exercises and low back pain

In the past, people thought that core weakness caused trunk instability. The consequence of this instability was, theoretically, lower back pain. Therefore, the logical solution was to do core exercises to resolve the lower back pain.

So, according to the previous belief, core strengthening would improve trunk stability and, therefore, reduce lower back pain. But… is this true?

Several studies, some compiled in a review in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, tested this theory and found that it’s not as simple as it sounds, due to the following reasons:

  • Some people with a weak core or unstable spine have no lower back pain.
  • Some people still have lower back pain even though they have strengthened their core.
  • Improving the function of the abdominals isn’t associated with a decrease in lower back pain.

This means that we can’t attribute the improvement of symptoms to core strengthening, or at least not to that alone. If this were true, all people with lower back pain would improve with this type of exercise and, likewise, all patients with a weakening in this muscle group would have lower back pain.

A man doing crunches.
Core exercises are beneficial, just like any other form of physical activity. However, there are controversies about their supposed effects against low back pain.

And what about those who’ve improved lower back pain with these exercises?

For many experts, doing core exercises helps back pain because it consists of exercising in general, not because the area is weak. In fact, this form of exercise has shown similar effects to other sports activities for lower back pain in the long term.

This may be due to several factors, for example:

  • Lower back pain naturally decreases after a few weeks, with or without physical exercise.
  • Doing core exercises is in itself an exercise, which provides the benefits of any other physical activity.
  • When performing any exercise, people are more aware of what they’re doing. Therefore, they begin to avoid movements that worsen symptoms.

Physical activity for lower back pain

At this point, it’s clear that exercise can be a good coadjuvant against lower back pain, although it often doesn’t work on its own. Core strengthening, in particular, doesn’t seem to be as powerful as some describe it. In spite of this, this doesn’t mean that doing it is bad.

The practice of core exercises within a training plan has benefits, but they’re not the only option. In fact, it’s best to consult with a physiotherapist to choose the best options according to the severity of lower back pain or its origin.

Core exercises: Yes or no?

For those who enjoy them, of course you can do them! However, the myth that these exercises improve lower back pain needs to be debunked. This feeds the belief that lower back pain is a problem of weakness and instability, when we now know this isn’t the case.

As for the best treatment for lower back pain, no treatment in and of itself is the absolute solution. There must be a combination of approaches to ensure permanent improvement. As it is, it may include options such as:

  • Exercising more and avoiding complete rest
  • Stress management
  • Eating properly
  • Sleeping well

Lower back pain is a complex phenomenon that develops very differently in two people with the same symptoms. Therefore, it requires an individualized approach.

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