Is Running Bad For Your Back?

Running is now thought to have a positive effect on low back health.

Running is now thought to have a positive effect on low back health.

Great news! There's new research available that says running is actually GOOD for your spine. The article, published in Scientific Reports, compares the spine health of runners and non-runners. It found that runners who ran 30 miles or more per week showed significantly improved disc health in the lower spine. This means that those discs were less prone to tears, herniations and bulges. Let’s take a look at the specifics.

Let’s start by looking at the spine. The spine has three main sections: cervical (neck), thoracic (rib cage area) and lumbar (low back). There are 7 cervical segments, 12 thoracic segments and 5 lumbar segments. Each of these segments, regardless of where they're located, are attached to a soft disc above and below. These discs act as shock absorbers and allow the spine to move and twist. Unfortunately these discs are also prone to injury. Because they absorb shock and accommodate movement, they are also the structures that tend to create injury due to the amount of strain they endure. You’ve probably heard the terms “bulging disc,” “slipped disc” or “herniated disc” before. This refers to an injury of these discs.

So here’s the good news. Running is now thought to have a POSITIVE impact on the strength of these discs. Recent research has shown that runners who average 30 miles or more per week were roughly 15% LESS LIKELY to have an injury to a lumbar disc. Even runners who averaged less than 30 miles per week were still 11% LESS LIKELY to have lumbar disc injury.  

That’s a pretty big deal especially because running has often been considered to be harmful to the lumbar discs. My runners receiving physical therapy for low back pain in Nashville, TN and Franklin, TN ask me all the time if they should quit running. Of course, the answer to this question depends on the severity of their symptoms and their personal response to the impact of the sport. For those who are acutely irritated, taking a break from running and pursuing other forms of cross training may be a good idea. However for those who are not acutely irritated and are able to keep running, it’s good to know there is some quality research out there to reinforce the positive effect of the sport on their low back health.

Are you a runner suffering from low back pain? Send us a TEXT. We’d love to talk to you about it.

Josh Orendorf is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and owner of Paceline Physical Therapy in Franklin, TN. He is an Ironman triathlete and Boston Marathon qualifier. He has a passion for helping athletes conquer injury and return to sport without pain. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife, Leigh, and their dog, Annie.