Is swimming good for back pain?

Wondering is swimming good for back pain? See what the experts have to say…

Man swimming on his back and smiling
(Image credit: Getty)

Is swimming good for back pain? If you suffer from back pain then you might struggle to find a form of exercise that doesn’t escalate this pain. You often hear people mentioning how good swimming is for injury recovery and rehabilitation but can it specifically benefit those with back pain?

It’s no secret that keeping active and mobile helps relieve back pain, even activities as simple as walking can help manage pain, especially when kitted out in supportive wear like a pair of the best shoes for walking. But there have to be more styles of workout for people suffering from back pain to benefit from, particularly when this is an issue affecting so many. According to the CDC (opens in new tab) lower back pain is very common and the leading cause of disability around the world. The CDC also found it was the most common type of pain patients reported, with around 25% of adults experiencing lower back pain in the last three months. 

The good news is, according to The American College of Physicians (opens in new tab), most people with lower back pain will improve over time regardless of treatment. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take action yourself. When it comes to exercise that helps with back pain, swimming is right at the top of the list. Research published in The Kurume Medical Journal (opens in new tab) has shown that exercises in water may be one of the most useful forms of exercise for people with back pain. 

Still thinking ‘is swimming good for back pain?’ We interviewed three experts including a doctor, physiotherapist, and an osteopath for their take…

Our medical experts

Dr Folusha Oluwajana
Dr Folusha Oluwajana

Dr Folusha Oluwajana is a portfolio GP in North London with 9 years’ experience. She has a First Class BSc in Sports and Exercise Medicine and is a qualified fitness instructor, as featured in Channel 4’s ‘21 Day Body Turnaround Michael Mosley'.

Nadia Alibhai
Nadia Alibhai

Nadia Alibhai, located in West London, is a registered Osteopath with 15 years of experience helping thousands of patients. She's helped people recover from a range of issues stemming from illness, poor posture and unhealthy lifestyles.

Miriam Daurat
Miriam Daurat

Miriam Daurat graduated from the University of the West of England in 2020 and now works as a physiotherapist at Our Health Hub.

Should you swim with back pain?

You might have heard that swimming can be good for people dealing with back pain, but perhaps you’re worried about making the problem worse. We spoke to three different experts and they all agreed that swimming is a great option for people with back pain, provided it is performed correctly.

One of the major benefits is that the water will help support you and offers low impact resistance. “It is low impact and the buoyancy of the water supports your body weight reducing the load on your spine. This allows you to get some cardiovascular exercise without impact on the spine that you might experience during other forms of exercise such as running,” says Dr Folusha Oluwajana (opens in new tab), a portfolio GP and PT.

As well as helping people with back pain to get in some exercise, swimming can actually help alleviate pain. “Having our body weight in water can allow for relaxation and support of muscles and joints and can even reduce compression forces on nerves. These things allow for building muscle strength and release endorphins which also help with tackling back pain,” says Miriam Daurat, a physiotherapist at Our Health Hub (opens in new tab).

But what if swimming doesn’t feel accessible to you right now? Start slow! “I advise my patients to start with pool therapy where they start by standing in the water, then progress to walking lengths in the pool by holding on to the sides of the pool, and work up to using their arms and core to give stability. Let pain be your guide. If it hurts, stop what you are doing,” says osteopath Nadia Alibhai (opens in new tab)  

How can swimming help with your back pain?

Are you wondering about the mechanics of how swimming helps back pain? Being in the water allows for relaxation and for the body to untense and unwind. “Swimming can help with back pain as it helps release pressure from the joints allowing associated structures to relax which can reduce compression of the nerves,” says Alibhai. 

What swimming strokes are best for back pain?

Before you even consider what stroke to use, have a think about your form and what you can perform correctly. You don’t want to inadvertently make things worse for yourself. “Good technique while swimming is important, incorrect technique over time can result in tension through the torso and lower back, causing aches and pains,” says Daurat.

Which stroke will be best for you and your back pain will depend on what has caused your back pain, along with your own swimming ability and workout intensity. “In general, focus on spine friendly strokes as the position and movement of various strokes can affect the spine,” advises Alibhai.

Backstroke 

“It is important to use back friendly strokes, those which minimize excessive arching or rotation of the back adding extra strain. Backstroke is the most back friendly swimming stroke as you are on your back and it does not require any rotation so you can maintain a neutral spine,” says Oluwajana. 

Front crawl 

Generally speaking, backstroke and front crawl are considered the safest for people with back pain, but be careful if you have disc issues. “Backstroke and freestyle won't force your back to arch but you may worsen pain related to the discs in your lower back,” says Alibhai.

If you give it a go “keep the body level in water by holding the lower abdominal muscles up and in and keep the head straight rather than lifted,” advises Alibhai.

Struggling? Oluwajana suggests using a snorkel “this makes it back friendly as you can keep your head in the water and avoid an arching or rotation needed when coming up for breaths.”

Breaststroke 

Breaststroke isn’t considered the most back friendly swimming stroke, but it can be useful in some situations. “The positions required for breaststroke can place strain along the neck and back, especially with incorrect technique, which may worsen pre-existing lower back pain. However good breaststroke technique can help strengthen the upper back and shoulders,” says Daurat. 

Butterfly  

While you are recovering from back pain, the butterfly is probably safer to skip. “The butterfly and breaststroke can force the lower back to arch backwards which can add stress to the facet joints at the back of your spinal column worsening the condition,” advises Alibhai. 

Other activities 

Don’t forget you can do other activities in water! “Simply walking in a shallow pool, treading water or water aerobics are great low impact activities for people with back pain. They are low impact, as the water supports your weight, sparing your spine, but the water also provides some resistance making it more challenging and building strength,” says Oluwajana. 

Does swimming make your back stronger?

The good news is swimming will make your back stronger, as it is a resistance exercise. “To propel forward you need to push and pull the water with your arms and legs. The main strokes to build your back muscles are the backstroke and butterfly. Swimming also helps strengthen your buttock muscles such as the gluteus maximus and minimus which help with general posture,” says Alibhai.

“Swimming can help strengthen your back, in particular your paraspinal muscles, as well as your core, shoulder, and glutes, which can lead to improvements in back pain,” adds Oluwajana. But don’t push yourself too hard. “As with any form of exercise, any significant worsening of pain symptoms should be discussed with your GP or a Physiotherapist,” says Daurat.

For more on back pain and exercise read up on; are exercise bikes good for back pain? Or, try this pilates for back pain routine and test out one of the best yoga mats while you're at it.