Back Injury – H20 May Be the Way to Go

Jun 14, 2024 | Patients

by Brent Hearn • 

If you’ve ever sustained a back injury, even a mild one, you know how frustrating it can be. Whether you momentarily forgot the “lift with your legs and not your back” axiom we’ve repeated roughly half a gazillion times on this blog or you just “slept wrong,” even a mild tweak can linger longer than you’d expect and really cramp your style. And if the injury is more serious, it can be a major source of concern and stress.

In some cases, back pain can force patients to alter their lifestyles significantly, particularly when it comes to physical fitness. Being forced to limit—or even eliminate—activities you enjoy can rob you of important means of staying healthy, fit, and strong. And that’s not to mention the many important mental and emotional benefits physical activity can provide.

Fortunately, in many cases, not all physical activity has to be eliminated; it just needs to be modified. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re a distance runner who’s sustained a back injury. Just because all that pavement-pounding mileage may not be the best thing for your recovery doesn’t mean you can’t get in some decent cardio. How? Enter the water. (Literally.)

Make Like a Fish and Swim

Swimming can offer numerous benefits to those dealing with back pain. That said, let’s start with a caveat. (You probably already know what’s coming.) It’s important to consult your physician before beginning any new exercise or workout regimen, especially if you’re dealing with an injury.

With that out of the way…why swimming? For starters, it’s a lower-impact way to get in your cardio. Makes sense with a back injury, right? The less jarring and jostling, the better. And when paired with the right diet (consult a dietitian to learn more about what “right” means for your body and lifestyle), it can help shed excess pounds if necessary, removing stress from your joints. In short, it’s possible that swimming could not only allow you to get in your cardio while you’re injured but also, over time, pitch in to help alleviate your pain.

That said, just because swimming is a low-impact exercise doesn’t mean you can’t overdo it. Be smart, take it slow, and—again—consult your physician.

But What If…

But what if I can’t swim? Or what if my back pain is so severe that even swimming is too intense for me? Or what if I only have access to a tiny, crowded pool? Or what if I can swim, but I look so awkward doing it that strangers keep trying to rescue me?

The good news: You don’t have to actually swim for the water to do its thing. There are numerous activities that you can try in the pool that are less intense. Pool therapy, water aerobics, and aquatic yoga (yes, it’s a thing) are all forms of physical activity you can try in the pool that don’t require you to know the difference between a butterfly stroke and a breaststroke. (In one 2022 study, pool therapy won out over physical therapy when it came to pain, function, quality of life, sleep quality, and mental state.

So there we have it. Even if you’re not a strong swimmer, you can still use the water to your advantage. That said, it’s never too late to learn to swim, physical limitations permitting. It’s a great opportunity to reap all the cardiovascular and strength benefits of swimming, all while engaging your brain by learning something new.


Fit and Well: Is Swimming Good for Back Pain?

Harvard Health Publishing: Pool Therapy Beats Physical Therapy for Chronic Low Back Pain

Spine-health: 3 Essential Tips for Swimming with Back Pain