When you have back pain, it can be very tempting to skip some of the activities that you usually enjoy. Some runners tend to be wary of donning their trainers when back pain strikes, for fear of making the pain worse. Others ignore resulting pain aggravation completely and just keep running without making modifications. Neither approach is probably optimal.
The types of physical activity that people can tolerate when they have back pain varies greatly between individuals. There is a common misconception that the best course of treatment for back pain is bedrest and a soothing hot pack, however, the latest evidence shows that being physically active is always the first line of treatment for common back pain. This obviously does not mean all intensities and types of exercise are ok if you are in severe pain. Sometimes you have to make modifications, but you should always try to remain physically active within your level of load tolerance.
Resting for lengthy periods and remaining sedentary has been shown to actually make back pain worse and lengthen the recovery process. That means that, even if you can only manage very low intensity or short distance running, you shouldn’t give up on it entirely.
Running is a weight-bearing activity, and so it can make your bones, ligaments, and muscles stronger, including other structures in your back, making them less susceptible to injury and wear and tear.
Similarly, running regularly and increasing the intensity gradually while using proper footwear (that provides proper amounts of cushion and shock absorption) has been shown to decrease lower back pain.
This means that, when done at a level that you can comfortably tolerate, running can actually help your recovery from back pain and keep your back strong and healthy in the long term. It may in some instances be helpful to take some time off from running to allow your symptoms to settle, however, be sure to keep up your aerobic capacity during these periods through other lower-impact forms of endurance exercise such as cycling, using a cross trainer or swimming. Then, simply build back up your distance, tolerance and intensity when you feel able to. Consider doing strengthening exercises along with during your recovery and perhaps before or while returning to running, to restore or expand your running capacity. Strength training has been shown to be effective to reduce back pain as well as be beneficial to running performance.
If you haven’t run before, it may be best to begin with walking and walk/run intervals, eventually building up to running.
All in all, it is safe to run when you have common back pain, and running is healthy and good for your back, so long as you find your 'running tolerance', then build it up from there as the body adapts.
If you are unsure about how to progress your running or unsure if this is the right advice for you, please consult with a healthcare professional.