Running strengthens the lumbar discs
As movement specialists, we know that fabrics adapt according to the constraints to which they are subjected. This concept is essential because it underlies the need for optimal load management during exercises and different activities (see previous post). Although this process of tissue adaptation has been studied for bones, muscles, tendons and joints (1), little scientific information is available regarding intervertebral discs.
Probably this lack of information associated with the high prevalence of low back pain (= pain in the lower back) are responsible for certain popular beliefs such as “running damages the intervertebral discs”.
The rational behind this idea is based on a mechanical point of view of the intervertebral disc: the disc undergoes compressive stresses, activities leading to an increase in these compressive stresses will cause this disc to wear out more quickly”. Although this thought may seem logical to some, it does not take into account one of the most extraordinary biological capacities: adaptation.
In an effort to improve our understanding of the subject, researchers took MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to 79 people between the ages of 25 and 35 and divided them into subgroups according to their level of activity: sedentary , recreational runners (20-40km/week) or seasoned runners (50Km+/week). This study highlights better hydrated and better quality intervertebral discs in runners (higher content of glycosaminoglycans) compared to non-runners. To go further, they observed thicker discs in seasoned runners (2).
For the first time, a study carried out in humans shows a positive adaptation of the intervertebral discs following repeated compressive stresses (practice of running). These results go against popular mechanistic beliefs and support the philosophy that our body is not a machine but rather an ecosystem (= biological entity) capable of adaptations.
Although this study brings new information, it is important to take a step back on the subject. Indeed, we still have a lot to learn about the behavior of intervertebral discs in the face of mechanical stress. In addition, it may be inadvisable to run in the presence of certain specific pathologies or intense pain, ask your doctor or physiotherapist for advice on the subject. Then, although running shows beneficial effects on the intervertebral discs, it is essential to be progressive in your training. Last but not least, it is important to recognize that many factors are associated with low back pain and that medical imaging is only one piece of the puzzle (3–6).
- Khan KM, Scott A. Mechanotherapy: how physical therapists’ prescription of exercise promotes tissue repair. Br J Sports Med. 2009 Apr 1;43(4):247–52.
- Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc | Scientific Reports [Internet]. [cited 2020 Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45975
- Hartvigsen J, Hancock MJ, Kongsted A, Louw Q, Ferreira ML, Genevay S, et al. What low back pain is and why we need to pay attention. Lancet Lond Engl. 2018 09;391(10137):2356–67.
- Malfliet A, Ickmans K, Huysmans E, Coppieters I, Willaert W, Bogaert WV, et al. Best Evidence Rehabilitation for Chronic Pain Part 3: Low Back Pain. J Clin Med. 2019 Jul 19;8(7).
- O’Sullivan PB, Caneiro JP, O’Keeffe M, Smith A, Dankaerts W, Fersum K, et al. Cognitive Functional Therapy: An Integrated Behavioral Approach for the Targeted Management of Disabling Low Back Pain. Phys Ther. 2018 May;98(5):408–23.
- Tousignant-Laflamme Y, Martel MO, Joshi AB, Cook CE. Rehabilitation management of low back pain – it’s time to pull it all together! J Pain Res. 2017;10:2373–85.