I've been wanting to start a thread like this! I'm in the middle of my third episode of back injury in four years. Like you, I’m really just starting out, and I’d love advice from people who’ve figured out how to work around problems like herniated discs (which is what I think I have). I did some searches of the archives, but I haven’t found much past discussion of back problems and exercise. My general understanding is that core strengthening and low impact exercise (e.g., swimming) are best, but that’s after the injury has healed.
So my first suggestion, and this is based on hard personal experience, is that immediately after doing something to your back, the question shouldn't be "how do I exercise?" but "how do I heal?"
I know how incredibly frustrating it is to have an exercise routine interrupted, because I was in the middle of training for a triathlon, and I was really gung ho about it and I’m very disappointed that I won’t be able to do it this year. But last summer I was in pain for weeks and sent my back into terrible spasms because I kept trying to exercise and maintain my routines. This time I've been avoiding sitting or driving, and I've been alternating between 1) lying down, 2) standing up and moving around, and 3) going for short walks, and my back is getting better much faster and I’m in much less pain.
So I'd start with anti-inflammatories and ice, plenty of rest alternated with mild activity, and spending some time flat on your back with your feet up on a chair (knees at 90 degrees). Then go for short walks, just as long as you can before your back begins to hurt. This sounds like no exercise at all, but I've been going for 3 or 4 20 minute walks a day, which works out to 3 or 4 miles. It might be just a pulled muscle, and if so, you can get back to your regular routine pretty quickly. But sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s going on right away, so take a week or so to figure out how serious the injury is and how fast it will heal.
I’d second the recommendation to see a doctor and/or physical therapist if you can, because what kinds of exercises you can do and how you should strengthen your back seems to depend a lot on what injury you have. I found a great book, called “Back Pain: How to Relieve Low Back Pain and Sciatica” by Dr. Loren Fishman and Carol Ardman. It’s chock full of incredibly useful basic information about the physiology of the back, different kinds of injuries, and how to navigate the health care system. I feel much better now that I have a basic understanding of what might be happening and why.
Dr. Fishman is also a yoga practitioner, and he has another book called “Cure Back Pain with Yoga” which gives advice for particular poses that will help with particular injuries. This book is what helped me to understand that I needed to get a diagnosis and advice from a physical therapist, because some poses that are good for some back problems are bad for others and vice versa. I already have several “yoga for your back” DVDs and some generic yoga DVD’s, so I've been doing most of the Mayo Clinic 15 minute a day exercises already. My plan is to make a list of the poses and movements that are included in my yoga routines and ask my physical therapist to go over it with me so that I know which will be good for my back in particular.
That is, once I have a physical therapist. I have an appointment with a physiatrist (physical therapy/rehab doctor) next week, but I don’t have a physical therapy appointment yet because checking my insurance coverage is "on Marie's to do list" and apparently they won’t schedule an appointment until she’s done that.
Phew! Obviously I have a lot of pent up thoughts on this topic - I hope your injury doesn't turn out to be too serious – and that there'll be more discussion and advice.