Can walking really cure a bad low back? While the word “cure” may be a little too strong, certain types of walking may have a therapeutic effect for people who have suffered a back injury. However, it is important to differentiate between these different methods of walking because some types may actually lead to a sore or uncomfortable back.
The first type of walk to consider is slowly walking, or strolling. While strolling, he compressive forces on the lumbar spine (lower back) are about two-and-a-half times body weight. This is usually far lower than the forces that would be necessary to cause an injury to the discs, ligaments, or bones of the low spine. However, slower walking puts the spine into a position where it does not move, while the forces are low but constant. Over time, this type of walking may lead to overuse soreness, or exacerbate symptoms of lower back pain.
Faster walking, though, can provide a more beneficial effect to low back pain sufferers. Walking fast is associated with the same amount of compressive loading as slower walking, which is (again) lower than would be necessary to create an injury. The difference is that fast walking creates cyclical forces on the spine and other tissues, especially with arm swinging. Swinging the arms results in lower forces on the spine, lower amounts of torque, and lower muscle activation, when compared to slow walking. This may create the health benefits associated with walking.
One final type of walking to try is carrying a backpack that is loaded in the lower portion. The backpack may be loaded with up to 20-25 lbs of weight, and the walking should be done over uneven ground. The weight leads to back extension and a more upright walking and standing position. With more back extension rather than flexion, compressive loads can actually be decreased, even with a weighted backpack being worn. The purpose of the uneven ground is to cause the walker to generate movement in the lower back, providing a further therapeutic effect.
Thus, an exercise as simple as walking can either exacerbate or reduce the symptoms of back pain, especially lower back pain. Slow strolling, on the one hand, may lead to more back soreness and discomfort due to overuse and static forces on the spine. Faster walking with arm swinging, and walking with a weighted backpack over uneven ground, on the other hand, if used properly, can actually help reduce symptoms of back pain.