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Patient Resources

Staying active for acute low back pain

Musculoskeletal
        1. Staying active for acute low back pain

First published: 28 May 2020

The RACGP gratefully acknowledge the following contributor:

  • Zoe Michaleff, Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, Bond University

Related GP HANDI entry Advice to stay active for people with acute low back pain


 

Your doctor has recommended that you stay active to help you recover from your low back pain.

Key points

  • Most people with low back pain will get better on their own within 4–6 weeks.
  • Staying active when you have back pain is better for recovery than long periods of rest e.g. in bed or on the lounge.
  • Bed rest or not moving can slow your recovery from low back pain.

Back pain usually improves on its own

  • Low back pain is common: 8 out of 10 people will experience low back pain at some point in life.
  • Usually, the pain or discomfort quickly improves; most people get better within 4–6 weeks.

Why should I stay active?

  • Compared with long periods of rest (e.g. bedrest), staying active can help reduce pain and time off work.
  • Your back is made up of lots of bones, muscles and ligaments. It is strong and made to move. Staying as active as possible keeps your muscles strong and joints moving.
  • On the other hand, bedrest or lying down for long periods of time (beyond usual sleep) can slow your recovery. Not using your muscles much can cause them to become weaker.

What does staying active mean?

  • Staying active means continuing with your everyday activities as much as possible. This may include going to work, cooking, shopping, going to the park or doing the usual exercises that you enjoy. It does not mean doing any special exercises.
  • Staying active is safe for your back. If your back pain gets worse after certain activities, you may need to change these activities to make them more comfortable until your pain improves. The pain does not mean you are damaging your back.
  • You can change:
    • How long you do it for e.g. if you usually sit for long periods at work, you can stand up, go for a short walk or march on the spot about every 20 minutes to keep your back moving.
    • How vigorously you do it e.g. if you usually like to run, you might choose to walk or jog.
    • The type of activity you do e.g. if you usually go swimming, you can continue going to the pool but choose to walk or do other water exercises.
    • How often you do it e.g. swimming fewer laps.
    • How you do the activity e.g. when carrying the shopping, you might have to make each bag lighter and take one or two more trips. 
  • As your back pain improves, you can start to return to your normal level of activity by following the same rules (e.g. increasing how long, how often, how vigorous or the type of activity you do).

 

Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns or your pain continues for more than 6 weeks.
You can learn more about back pain and how to manage it at MyBackPain and NPS MedicineWise
Learn simple ways to manage your pain with Musculoskeletal Australia’s free online book: Managing your pain: An A-Z guide

Find a physiotherapist through the Australian Physiotherapy Association
Find an accredited exercise physiologist through Exercise and Sports Science Australia
Speak with a nurse on Musculoskeletal Australia’s free help line 1800 263 265 (weekdays 9 am – 5 pm).