The Power of Choosing Exercise to Treat Back Pain

The most significant hurdle to cross in our battle with back pain is accepting that the solution lies in the hands of the sufferer and not the provider. This realization must be accepted by health care providers and sufferers alike.

A recent NPR special featured a back pain boot camp in the Boston area. In this camp, patients with back pain have the opportunity to unlearn their pain. This boot camp is the product of a physiatrist named James Rainville M.D. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him. During our conversation, he kept saying, “We don’t help the back pain, our patients do.”

I couldn’t agree more.

In the boot camp, exercise is the medium through which back pain is mitigated (notice I didn’t say cured).

3 Ways Exercise Helps Back Pain

I thought that this would be an opportunity to mention three positive effects of exercise you might not think about.

Most of us understand exercise as potentiating a classic adaptive response from the body. If our muscles are stressed by exercise, the small damages inflicted will result in repairs that leave our muscles slightly bigger, more energy-filled, and stronger. Yet exercise does so much more.

  1. Exercise can help us unlearn pain. In my book, The End of Back Pain, I address this through a psychological concept called embodied cognition. Our bodies and our brains are inexorably interwoven. It is true that we smile when we are happy, but we are also happy because we smile. Try it yourself. Simply smile and you will feel slightly happier. Likewise, exercising our back will alter our brain’s concept of what our backs are capable of. It can convince us that we can use our back without pain or with less pain. It is the old “bait and switch” concept. Bend your back without pain during exercise, and you will soon be with less pain in life.
  2. Exercise can help us learn new things. Exercise is now known to cause our brain cells to produce more dendrites and connections to other nerves. It even causes our brain cells to regenerate — something that we thought couldn’t happen. Exercise can even potentiate our children’s learning in school.
  3. Exercise can affect our actual genes. If you subscribe to the calorie in calorie out philosophy of diet, you believe that weight loss comes from either eating less or exercising more. But exercise can bring about actual changes in our genes that have an influence on fat metabolism. One of the ways this occurs is through gene methylation, which is the addition or removal of a cluster of carbon-hydrogen molecules onto the gene. This structural change will change the way the gene operates. A recent study looked at the fat of subjects before and after a six-month exercise block. The genes that controlled the fat metabolism were different after six months. This suggests that exercise contributes more than just logging “calories out.”

Yes, exercise can help your pain. Yes, exercise can make your muscles stronger. But the bigger point is this: You can control your pain with exercise.

© 2014 Patrick Roth, M.D., author of The End of Back Pain: Access Your Hidden Core to Heal Your Body