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Justin Field, MDJustin Field, MD

Is Swimming Good for Back Pain?

By Justin Field, MD

Dr. Field is a board-certified, fellowship trained orthopedic spine surgeon. Dr. Field has specialized training in minimally invasive spine surgery and motion sparing technologies.

August 4, 2022
Swimming is an excellent exercise, and it often feels refreshing to take a dip in the water. It is also beneficial for your health and provides an effective way to relieve back pain. Keep reading this article to discover how swimming can help with back pain.

Benefits of Swimming for Back Pain

Swimming can relieve back pain by alleviating pressure on your joints, increasing back strength and more. Here are five specific benefits of swimming for back pain.

1. Reduces Pressure on Your Joints

Whenever you put an object or body in water, it will have some buoyant force that resists gravity and decreases its weight. Thus, the buoyancy of water reduces the body weight the joints in your spine support. That’s why swimming and other aquatic exercises are easier on your joints than land-based exercise. Exercising in water is an ideal way to increase strength without risking joint or back pain. Relaxing in water also relieves back pain caused by sitting, standing or walking on land.

2. Increases Back Strength

Swimming can strengthen the muscles that support your spine. One way swimming increases strength is by elevating muscle myokine production, which is a type of protein produced and released in response to muscle contractions. These proteins regulate muscle cell proliferation and growth. With increased muscle myokine production comes more muscle mass, improved spinal stability and reduced back pain. Water also provides more resistance than air, resulting in stronger muscles in your core and back. 

3. Relieves Pain

Swimming increases endorphin secretions in your brain. Endorphins are hormones that promote pleasurable feelings and naturally relieve pain. If you’re dealing with back pain, the endorphins released from swimming can lessen it and make you feel good. 

4. Improves Circulation 

Research has shown immersion in warm water improves blood flow, which is essential for tissue healing. If your back pain relates to tissue damage, the improved circulation from swimming can accelerate the healing of those tissues and improve your back pain experience. 

5. Helps With Weight Loss or Weight Management

Obesity and excess weight are common comorbidities of back pain, so maintaining a healthy weight is essential to limiting your risk of experiencing back pain. Swimming and aquatic exercise are excellent ways to control your weight, especially if you need to shed some pounds to reach a target. 

Types of Back Pain Suitable for Swim Therapy

1. Sciatica

Inflammation and irritation of the sciatic nerve cause sciatica. This nerve begins in your lower back, runs through your buttocks and branches down each leg. When it gets compressed or pinched from nearby joints, discs or bone spurs, pain can radiate along this nerve from your lower back down one or both legs.

Just as the buoyancy of water reduces pressure on your joints, it also reduces pressure on your nerves. In this way, swimming is helpful for sciatica pain. Adding exercise into the mix can strengthen the muscles around the affected nerve without aggravating your pain.

2. Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease is a natural condition where one or more spinal discs in between each vertebra dry out and crack. The proper function of spinal discs is to absorb shock and allow movement between vertebrae. This condition causes increased back pain as the vertebrae have less cushioning and absorb more shock than when healthy.

Aquatic exercise can help with degenerative disc disease by increasing circulation to the damaged tissues, helping them stay as hydrated and flexible as possible. Swimming and aquatic exercise also strengthen supporting muscles and promote weight loss, which can help with degenerative disc disease pain by relieving pressure on your joints.

3. Herniated Disc

A herniated disc occurs when the fluid-filled center of a spinal disc tears through the interwoven fabric-like exterior, creating a bulge or rupture in the spinal canal. The herniated disc can pinch, pressure or irritate your spinal cord nerves, causing pain and discomfort. 

One study shows that swimming can reduce inflammation and nerve pain caused by lumbar disc herniations. The study posits that swimming may be an effective therapy for improving herniated discs in the lumbar region. 

Swimming Tips for People With Back Pain

The pool or lake are ideal places to go if you’re experiencing back pain. You can relax and experience pain relief or exercise without worrying about aggravating your condition. Here are some pool exercises for lower back pain.
Walking

If walking on land aggravates your back pain, why not take a stroll in the water? Walking in the water will reduce pressure on your joints and release endorphins to relieve pain. Further, the resistance from the water will increase the cardiovascular benefits you get from walking. 

Water aerobics

Since water’s buoyancy reduces pressure on your joints and makes you lighter, the pool or lake are excellent places to perform aerobic exercises if you deal with back pain. High-impact aerobic exercises like jumping jacks become much less risky for back pain when performed in the water, while water’s resistance ensures you get the same benefit. 

Swimming laps

Swimming laps is an ideal, low-impact alternative to running if you’re dealing with back pain. Swimming laps gives you a similar cardiovascular benefit without significantly aggravating your condition. 

How to Avoid Back Pain Risks While Swimming

While water exercises for back pain are a safe alternative to land-based exercises, there are still back pain risks to avoid when you’re in the water. Awkward movements and exercising at a higher intensity than you should can still aggravate your condition. Here are some tips for swimming with back pain:

  • Avoid twisting your hips and waist when swimming. Using goggles or a snorkel can help when swimming laps. 
  • Consider enrolling in lessons with an instructor who can show you the correct form for performing specific strokes. 
  • Side and back strokes keep the spine neutral, so try these when swimming laps.
  • Be careful not to overdo exercising — sit in a hot tub for a while when you get tired. 
  • Make slow and controlled motions when performing water aerobics or swimming laps.
  • Use a pool noodle or other flotation device to keep your exercises low-impact.
  • Start slow and increase your swimming intensity, duration and frequency over time.

Find Back Pain Relief With DISC

There are many ways to find back pain relief, and swimming is one of them. For more information about how you can relieve back pain or to schedule an appointment with one of our back pain specialists, contact the Desert Institute for Spine Care today!

LEADERS IN MINIMALLY INVASIVE SPINE CARE
1635 E. Myrtle • Suite 400 • Phoenix, AZ 85020
Ph: 602-944-2900 • Fax: 602-944-0064

DISC - Desert Institute for Spine Care