Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc
By Dr. Geoff Gelley
Every day I tell patients that their back injuries will not heal and adapt unless they load (i.e. use resistance training) on these tissues during their daily activities or with the specific exercises that I have prescribed. Exercise protocols have been developed to appropriately load tissues such as bone, ligament, and muscle to allow patients to return to normal activity and function. However, little is known about the loading as a result of exercise with regards to the intervertebral discs of the lower back.
We have a pretty good idea of the types of loads that can injure or damage a lumbar disc and therefore I can inform patients about activities they should avoid to maintain disc health and integrity. Given this information, it is surprising that there is only a small amount of evidence on what activities or exercises are beneficial to strengthen lumbar discs. Runners are often concerned that running, especially distance running, can contribute to or aggravate low back pain.
A recent publication in Nature by Daniel Belavy and colleagues (2017) out of Australia reports on the effect of long-term running on men and women and lumbar intervertebral disc composition. This study recruited 3 groups of people: joggers (20-40 km/wk.), long-distance runners (50+ km/wk.), and a non-athletic control group. These participants underwent MRI scans of the lumbar spine, and then wore an accelerometer at hip level for 8 consecutive days to record impact loads on the body during running and daily activities.
This study’s main finding was that the MRI scans of long-distance runners and joggers demonstrated better hydration and proteoglycan levels of their intervertebral discs when compared to the non-athletic participants. In addition, the thickness of the intervertebral discs was greatest in the long-distance runners. The acceleration data confirmed that none of the participants were exposed to any of the impact loads that have been demonstrated to be detrimental to intervertebral disc integrity.
The take home message from this study is that the habitual loading of the lumbar discs in runners creates an adaptive response that actually strengthens the intervertebral disc and is no different from the muscle development that is obtained with strengthening exercises. This study refutes a common misconception that running contributes to wear and tear of the lumbar discs and causes low back pain. In fact, running is beneficial to the long-term maintenance of a healthy back.
Dr. Geoff Gelley is a chiropractic sports specialist with over 25 years of experience. He is also a PhD candidate and researcher at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Gelley has been published in numerous scientific journals. He is a running/cycling enthusiast.
This article is for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for specific advice from your health professional. Always consult your health professional if you are in any way concerned about your health.