When Lower Back Pain After a Workout Is Cause for Concern

Some soreness after hitting the gym is okay, but if you have excruciating lower back pain after a workout that just won't quit, you might have an injury.

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There are some major worries around lower back pain — during or after a workout — pervading the fitness world. Case in point: While you're powering through a class, you'll probably hear your instructor give a reminder about keeping proper form and stress that you're doing something wrong if you're feeling it in your lower back.

To be fair, back injuries are not fun. Not only can they force you to dial back your fitness routine, but they may also require you to go through physical therapy or even have surgery. So, it makes sense that gym-goers and at-home fitness enthusiasts alike often want to baby their backs and start to panic if they feel any aches or pangs. But is lower back pain after a workout something you actually need to worry about? Simply put, it depends on your symptoms and their severity.

When Lower Back Pain After a Workout Is Normal

It's common to feel some tightness across your lower back after a workout, particularly after performing exercises that train that muscle group, says Leada Malek, C.S.C.S., a board-certified sports specialist and physical therapist. For example, you might feel some tension in your lower back muscles after performing barbell squats, deadlifts, or kettlebell swings — moves that load the back or require it to quickly go from bent to straight, says Malek.

Some aching and general soreness is common, too. "It's completely normal to feel lower back soreness after doing back or core exercises," adds Denis Patterson, D.O., a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Nevada Advanced Pain Specialists. After all, your core doesn't just include your abs muscles; it includes your back, too, and strengthening those muscles is a great way to prevent back pain.

Run-of-the-mill lower back soreness is the same as delayed-onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS) anywhere else, says Dr. Patterson. "It occurs due to your body's natural inflammatory reaction to exercise, causing microtrauma to the muscles and surrounding connective tissue," he explains. Back DOMS tends to develop gradually after exercise. You'll start to notice it six to eight hours after your workout, with it peaking 24 to 48 hours later and disappearing 72 hours post-workout, he says.

When Lower Back Pain After a Workout Becomes a Concern

That said, not all lower back pain experienced after a workout should be blown off. "It's not normal to feel sharp pain after a workout or very localized discomfort that's in one single spot or covering a band of an area," says Malek. By the same token, "acute back pain that occurs abruptly while or immediately after exercising is not normal and is usually a sign of an acute lower back injury," adds Dr. Patterson. "Acute back pain that's debilitating and doesn't diminish 72 to 96 hours after exercising could also indicate back injury."

Other signs you should book an appointment with your doctor? Your post-workout lower back pain is affecting the way you move, waking you up at night, or spreading to another part of your back or to your legs, says Malek. Joint or nerve symptoms such as numbness, tingling, weakness, or pain radiating to the lower extremities are also indicators of a potential injury, says Dr. Patterson.

"If you're feeling any sudden weakness in either leg or both legs, or if you feel like it's difficult to put your weight on a single leg — because those nerves come from the back — there [could be] an issue affecting the nerve root. That's when you definitely want to go and see someone very urgently," explains Malek.

Since back pain can be influenced by your current life stressors, sleep levels, and even beliefs about your back, it can be tough to nail down the exact cause of your post-workout lower back pain, says Malek. However, if you're feeling fine and are comfortable with your back and the exercise you're tackling, debilitating lower back pain could be caused by using too heavy of a load or having even a slight flaw in your form, she explains. "It can definitely be a single motion, especially when it comes to things like kettlebell swings. One intense motion you weren't ready for can definitely set you off," says Malek.

How to Treat Lower Back Pain After a Workout

The first step to take when suffering from lower back pain after a workout: Think happy thoughts, says Malek. "The way you feel about your back — in terms of beliefs about it, what it can do, and its outcome — directly affects the pain and how well it turns out for you. Try to think positive thoughts," she explains.

In the next few hours and days, get your back checked out by a professional, and try to keep it moving in a way that feels comfortable and doesn't exacerbate the pain, suggests Malek. "Try not to worry about being very stiff and protecting it, unless you feel like that's the only way that you can get through your day," she explains. If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, consider performing some gentle isometric core exercises, such as bird dogs, dead bugs, and bridges, as they can help relieve back pain, says Malek.

Depending on the severity of your situation, your doctor may recommend physical therapy to help you slowly work your way back to normal activity, and they may suggest stretches or strengthening exercises that gradually increase in load, says Malek. "When you go in this protective mode, where you just hold your back straight and you don't bend over, the pain calms down. But four weeks later, [if] you have to bend over to pick something up, that's when you'll feel it again," she explains. Translation: Movement is key on the path toward recovery.

How to Prevent Lower Back Pain After a Workout

Before you pick up the barbell for a deadlift or back squat, make sure you have the hip hinge — when you send your hips backward and then lower your torso toward the floor — down pat. "That critical movement sequence is important for squatting and for lifting, [and] it's usually a mechanism for a lot of people's pain. So, make sure you're properly hip-hinging," says Malek.

When you're ready to try exercises training your back or core, make sure you're performing them with the best mechanics for your body, suggests Malek. Everyone's body is different, so the form that feels best for one person during a deadlift, for example, may not be what's best for you, she explains. By training in ways that feel most comfortable for your body, you'll be less likely to become injured — whether it's in your back or another muscle. And if you've hurt your back in the past, it's a good idea to give your instructor a heads up so they can suggest form modifications that can help you avoid aggravating the injury.

TL;DR: A little soreness or tightness in your lower back after a workout typically isn't anything to be concerned about, but if your pain isn't going away or you're experiencing some debilitating symptoms, chat with your doctor, stat.

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