Could Your Back Pain Be the Result of Muscle Weakness?

What's the connection between back pain and weak muscles? It's all about networking between the intricate structures that support the spine. 

The back is a complicated network of bones, muscles, ligaments and nerves that start at the neck and end at the pelvis.  The spinal column is the star of the show, but keeping it healthy, strong and well protected also involves bones, muscles and structures from the legs, arms and abdomen. Here's how it works:

The spine consists of 33, stacked bones (vertebra) that provide structural support for the spinal cord--the bundle of nerves that carries signals from the brain to the rest of the body. These vertebra are protected and separated by round, spongy pads of cartilage (called intervertebral discs) that act as shock absorbers and allow flexibility so the body can move.  Ligaments and tendons attach muscles to the spine. Nerves run through the muscles to integrate their movements and functions.

All these structures work together in a complicated system of levers and pulleys that enable us to walk, run, stoop, bend, lift, dance and play (among other movements). If one set (or more) of muscles is too weak or strong, it can pull the ligaments and bones of the back and spine out of alignment. That puts pressure on the vertebra, discs and nerves and causes back pain. 

It's not just back muscles that have to be strong to support the spine. Abdominal, leg and arm muscles do too. Think about what happens when you bend down to lift a child. Your legs and abdomen work with your back, shoulder and arm muscles to grasp and lift the weight. If any of those muscles are weak and can't pull their weight, other muscles have to accommodate for them. That's how muscles get strained, sprained, pulled and painful.

Most acute back pain is muscular--a strain or sprain to the low back. Sometimes, ligaments get yanked or discs become damaged and that causes chronic (long-term) back pain. How do you prevent back pain? By strengthening muscles all over the body, but especially in the abdomen, legs and, of course, the back. 

  • Start with a good foundation of aerobic exercise like walking, swimming, biking, jogging or working out on a treadmill or elliptical trainer. Aim for at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Cardiovascular fitness improves circulation and oxygenation that keeps muscles healthy and strong.
  • Strength training with weights, resistance bands, or simply using bodyweight helps muscles adapt to fluctuating weight loads and repetitive movements. Strength training causes micro tears in muscle tissue. Those micro tears heal by building new, stronger muscle tissue, which makes the entire muscle capable of bearing more weight. The stronger the muscle gets, the more protection it provides bony structures.
  • Flexibility training keeps muscles and ligaments supple and capable of moving freely. Stretching, Pilates and yoga are good choices.

If you're already struggling with back pain, talk to a physical therapist and/or a fitness expert for a customized exercise plan. No matter what shape you're in, exercise is good for every body.