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It can be tough to know how long should you rest a lower back injury.
Medical advice will often be different—some doctors will tell you to get up and move around as soon as possible, while others will say to rest until the pain goes away.
And don’t get me started on all the advice from your friends! You won’t find a more conflicting collection of “tried and true” anywhere.
In this post, I want to address the question “How long should you rest a lower back injury?” and look at some cold, hard scientific data to help you understand the “ideal” rest period to rehabilitate your spine.
How Long Should You Rest a Lower Back Injury? Science Says…
Bed rest is the most common recommendations you’ll receive for treating back pain. And in a way, it can kind of make sense. After all, your back is in pain, but when you lie down and take the strain off your spine, the pain decreases. That’s a good thing, right?
You see, when you lie down, the strain is, indeed, taken off your spine. The muscles and joints in your lower back are allowed to relax, which reduces the tension—and thus the pain.
Unfortunately, this “relaxation” can actually be taken too far. Muscles tend to weaken when not used regularly. If you spend too long lying down in bed, your lower back muscles might actually shrink (atrophy), and recovery can take a lot longer.
Experts agree that even a little bit of movement immediately following a back injury is highly preferable to bed rest. Getting up and moving around will help to activate and strengthen the spinal muscles, lengthen the spine, and increase joint mobility. Exercise—even just going for a stroll—can help to increase blood flow through your body, which will in turn decrease inflammation and help the swelling around the injury location in your back decrease.
The ideal forms of rehab to accelerate recovery include:
Mild stretching to increase mobility in the lower back joints
Sleeping in a comfortable, supportive position
Applying cold and heat to address the swelling
Massaging the area to improve blood flow and decrease stiffness
Walking around the block—or even a few miles, if you can handle it
Getting back to your regular work and life activities (albeit modified to protect your back)
Wearing a back brace (if needed) when you move around
All of these things will help to accelerate your recovery far more effectively than spending time in bed!
Now, if you’re in a great deal of pain and HAVE to lie down, there’s nothing wrong with that—provided you don’t spend too much time in bed. Some rest can help with the recovery process as well as pain management.
The question is: how much time in bed is too much?
Ideally, you’d want to move around as much as possible within the first 72 hours following the back injury. However, most of the bed rest will take place within that timeframe, too. You have to find the balance between resting to reduce the pain and swelling and moving around enough to help your back heal.
Experts typically recommend sticking with 1-2 days of rest before resuming normal activities and moving around more. One study looked at the ideal length of time to rest, and found that spending longer in bed didn’t actually increase the healing time. People who spent 7 days resting only showed the same amount of pain reduction from a back injury as the people who spent just 3 days in bed. This proves that “longer” recovery times won’t actually speed up the healing process—the only thing that will help you heal faster is getting mobile and letting your body repair itself.
How Long Should You Rest a Lower Back Injury: A Few Important “Don’ts”
I want to highlight a few “don’ts” to keep in mind as you’re recovering:
DON’T lift heavy objects or lift with a twisting motion. This is likely to re-injure your back or worsen an existing injury.
DON’T try to work through your pain. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. Move as much as feels “safe”, sticking with light exercise like walking. Avoid any exercise that places undue strain on your lower back muscles.
DON’T try to get back to work and activity too quickly. This is especially important if your work is very active or requires a lot of heavy lifting, or if you do heavy weightlifting at the gym. Your back needs time to recover, so stick with light exercise and work duty.
DON’T resume “everything as normal”. Consider what caused the injury in the first place, and take steps to correct your movement, posture, or whatever else might have been the reason for your lower back pain. And, most importantly of all, add more core-strengthening exercises into your workouts. A stronger core will be more resistant to lower back injuries!
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