Shocking reality: How bed rest can actually cause back pain
In fact, a 2007 study published in the scientific journal Spine confirms what most people would be shocked to hear – just how much physical inactivity can change your spine.
And, just for the record, when we refer to ‘bed rest’ – we mean any kind of forced or prescribed period of physical activity restriction. This often happens to people dealing with a significant illness or injury.
Of course, sometimes, bed rest is recommended for pregnant women as a way to manage certain pregnancy-related complications. Although this practice has fallen out of popularity in recent years.
But, a big surprise to many people, bed rest has been linked to many health problems, including an increased risk of depression, anxiety, obesity, decreased bone mineral density, blood clots, and muscle weakening. Muscle weakening, in particular, may explain why many people experience low back pain after prolonged periods of inactivity or sedentary behavior.
A dangerous link between back pain, bed rest and its effect on your trunk muscles
The study in question looked at the effects of two weeks of bed rest on ten healthy male subjects. The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess the size and shape of certain muscles in their lower backs. They discovered a few interesting changes:
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First, the men’s multifidus muscles, important lumbar stabilizing muscles, shrunk in size and grew weaker (atrophied). Secondly, the rectus abdominus (six-pack muscle) and psoas muscles, both major trunk flexors, appeared to increase in thickness.
But, the researchers hypothesized this happened because the muscles got short and/or began demonstrating neurological “overactivity.”
More shocking news about the dangers of too much bed rest…
The researchers also found that while it took only 4 days for the multifidus muscles to recover to their “baseline” level, it took the psoas muscle about a month on average to get back to baseline. In other words, bed rest can cause trunk flexors to get super tight and fire inappropriately, and it can take a few weeks for these negative effects to go away.
How might this relate to back pain? Just look at the psoas: this muscle attaches from the lumbar spine to the leg. If it gets short and inflexible, it can pull on the low back.
This can throw off the alignment of your spine and lead to chronic back pain.
Ready for the good news? Reversing the effects of bed rest and physical inactivity
Most of us (hopefully) won’t ever have to endure a prolonged period of bed rest. But, we can still takeaway some important points from this longitudinal study:
First: stay active. According to the World Health Organization, 1 out of 4 adults don’t get enough exercise, and physical inactivity has been scientifically linked to everything from weight gain to depression to back pain.
If you do have to sit a lot for your job, change positions frequently. Sitting for four hours or more can increase the amount of pressure in certain areas of your lumbar spine and increase your risk for disc herniation.
Lastly, if you do have low back pain, exercise can help – but you’ll need to be patient. It may seem counter-intuitive, and many of us don’t want to move when our back hurts.
But, the consequences of inactivity can prolong your symptoms, particularly because it can throw off the function of your trunk muscles.
So, do exercises to improve the strength and coordination of your core, and ask for guidance from an exercise physiologist or qualified exercise professional. Of course, if you have serious pain issues, talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.
Sources for this article include:
Food & Nutrition
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