running with back pain

Running with Back Pain

Dr. Christopher Wolf. MD |Sports and Spine Orthopedics | Updated August 29, 2018

Runners would rather run than do any other kind of activity.  It is a lifestyle, a natural high, and a Zen-like place to unwind.  If you are a runner, you are probably aware of the various problems that come with it, like arthritis in the knee, plantar fasciitis, and hip problems.  What you may not realize is that running can cause back pain, and if you already have a back problem, running can actually make it worse.  Still, for those who are dedicated to this form of exercise, you probably wonder if there is a way you can run and care for your back, too.

You can take some steps to safeguard your back against the ills of running, and even if you have an existing back problem, you can still find ways to run that are easy on your back.

Be warned: it isn’t easy.  You will need to be patient with your body and work closely with a spinal doctor to rehabilitate your back for the rigors of running.  You may even need to give the running a break for a while to let the structures of the back heal, but most patients are able to continue running despite their back problems.

Back Stress Caused by Running

Running puts a tremendous amount of stress on the spine.  For starters, it can lead to simple sprains and strains of the supportive musculature of the back.  You can harm these muscles from the repeated impact, the way you stride, or how you hold your upper body when running.

In addition to the impact on muscles, running also injures the shock absorbing system of the back.  Between each vertebra is a thick, jelly filled structure known as a disc.  With each strike of the foot against the ground, this disc is compressed to keep the impact from jarring all the way up your spine.  When the discs have taken too much pressure, or they are damaged from some other activity, the stress of running can make these discs herniate and cause pain.

Frequent Back Problems in Runners

Sprains and strains are the most common form of back problem in runners, they are usually easily treated and don’t cause long-term problems.  It is when the discs become involved that runners may find they have to modify their lifestyle.  The most common disc problem is a herniated or ruptured disc.  Generally, this occurs in the discs of the lumbar region, and the herniation of tissue can press against nerve roots, causing pain in the legs.  This is a condition known as sciatica, and it is common in runners.

The other type of disc problem generally seen in runners is degenerative disc disease.  When the discs are constantly pounded, they eventually lose their elasticity, and they can lose height, as well.  Degenerative disc disease is the progressive degeneration of the discs, and this can lead to pain in the legs, buttocks, hips, and lower back.  Fortunately, the body compensates well for this condition, and with proper care, you may be able to overcome the pain that it causes.

Treating Back Pain from Running

Muscle strains are usually self-limiting and responsive to at home treatments.  You should not run for two to three days, and apply ice to the area that is causing pain.  After 24 hours, you can switch to a heating pad.  Over the counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as Advil, are vital in this time period, and they can help to control most of the pain.  You should also use some gentle back stretches to ease the muscles back into their normal range of motion.

For more persistent back pain or pain that radiates to a leg, you may need more definitive treatment.  If the pain does not ease over a few days of rest, you should probably get a full evaluation by a spinal doctor.  Even a chronic back problem with disc involvement is treated with rest, exercises, and anti-inflammatory medications, but the rest is generally longer, the exercises are usually conducted in physical therapy, and the medications given are prescription strength versions of the over the counter drugs.  In rare circumstances, you may need surgery to repair the disc, but this is not common and not always successful.  More conservative treatments are generally preferred in the treatment of this type of back problem.


Take a few steps to help improve your back health with running.  For instance, you should do a warm up before you run that is comprised of gentle back stretches and easy cardio, such as walking.  Participating in weight training can also help by improving the strength of your core and back muscles, and this will help to avoid sprains and strains.

When running, you should consider cross training to avoid repeatedly stressing the back.  If you run for three days per week, see if you can bike or swim for the other two days.  This will keep you cardiovascularly in shape and take the pressure off of the spine and discs.  When you run, you should make sure that you wear well cushioned and supportive shoes to reduce the shock to the spine.  In addition, running on surfaces that give way, such as grass or dirt as opposed to concrete, will help to minimize the stress on the spine.

If long distance running is causing your back to hurt,  consult a spinal professional.  Sports and Spine Orthopedics is one of the premier back practices in southern California and has a prominent spine surgeon Dr. Wolf on staff. They help many runners maintain their enjoyment of the sport and have dedicated themselves to helping people with spine problems and other chronic pain issues.  Back pain that will not go away deserves investigation, and you can contact us to set up a consultation about running and your back health. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.