Engaging in exercise and fitness activities helps keep the back healthy by allowing discs to exchange fluids which is how the disc receives its nutrition. A healthy disc will swell with water and squeeze it out, similar to the action of a sponge. This sponge action distributes nutrients to the disc.
In addition, fluid exchange helps to reduce the swelling in the other soft tissues that naturally occurs surrounding injured discs. When there is a lack of exercise, swelling increases and discs become malnourished and degenerated.
Exercising the back reduces stiffness by keeping the connective fibers of ligaments and tendons flexible. Improved mobility through back exercise helps to prevent the connective fibers from tearing under stress, which in turn prevents injury and back pain.
Another important effect of exercise is that it stretches, strengthens, and repairs muscles that help to support the back. The back and abdominal muscles act as an internal corset supporting the vertebrae discs, facet joints, and ligaments. When back and abdominal muscles are weak they cannot support the back properly. Back strengthening exercises help to strengthen these supporting muscles in order to prevent straining soft tissues (e.g. muscles, ligaments, and tendons) and provide sufficient support for the structures in the spine.
Additionally, stretching is good for the back. For example, stretching hamstring muscles helps to relieve stress on the low back. Another benefit of back exercise is that the motion helps lubricate the facet joints, which are synovial joints that require appropriate motion.
Integrating Exercise with Medical Treatment
Exercise and fitness are necessary for healing existing back problems, recovering from back surgery, and especially for keeping the back healthy to help prevent (or at least lessen) future episodes of back pain.
Ideally, an exercise and fitness program should be integrated during most phases of treatment for pain relief and to improve the overall health of patients. If the pain is severe, however, patients may first need to be treated for the pain prior to starting a back exercise program.