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Does Pilates really help with back pain?

May 25, 2019




As well as training as a Pilates teacher I have also trained as a dancer. I've danced on and off for many years - belly dancing, Ciroc, ballet salsa and ballroom dancing and have relished every slide, sashay and smooch. I got quite good at it. I could get around the dance floor without stopping or falling over, or so I thought.


My dancing days almost came to halt when, doing a rather adventurous 'Chase me Charlie' Cha Cha style, I fell backwards off a low stage and hurt not only my dignity but my lower back. Everyone thought it was hilarious, I felt a complete idiot.   Me being me, I foolishly persevered with my passion of dancing until the lower pain in my back and side was unbearable. My  Cha Cha Cha was more of a Ooh Ooh Ooh. No fun for anyone, least of all my dancer partner.


In the end I was forced to visited my GP and was told that I'd got deep bruising to my Cocyx (base of the spine) that I'd probably torn a ligament as I'd twisted to save myself as I fell off the stage. The GP gave me some anti -inflammatory drugs which did help to take the pain away and I thought I was good to go with the dancing again. The GP recommended Pilates to strengthen my lower back and core as I was a dancer. I completely ignored his advice, fool that I was. I thought I was fit enough as a dancer and didn't need to do anything else.


I then realised that it was a mistake to continue dancing when there was pain instead of going to the GP earlier because, to manage the pain I'd started to dancing awkwardly, holding myself in unnatural positions whilst steadily wrecking my body. Knowing what I know now as a Pilates teacher, this was probably the worse thing I could ever have done. 




Then another dancer who had suffered back pain in the past suggested Pilates as it had helped him and my reaction (like most people who've never heard of Pilates) was 'I'm fine thanks', not even sure what Pilates was but the name sounded funny so I wasn't going to try it. What I should have realised that, if two people suggest a solution (GP and a fellow dancer) then I should have taken their advice.




My back pain still wasn't improving , in fact it was deteriorating because it was starting to hurt when I got out of the car or bent down too quickly.  I didn't want to take anti-inflammatory drugs forever so I took my dancer friend's advice and signed up for a Pilates class and this was around 2007 with a small Pilates class with lovely teacher, a ballet dancer too. I'm pleased to say that, after a few sessions, my back pain eased and I could return to dancing,  now totally hooked on Pilates.


I found that going regularly to Pilates classes meant that I'd met another circle of friends outside my world of dancing that gave me other perspectives.


 I began to move with more poise and was lighter on my feet. My back pain was gone.  I was stronger and fitter than I'd ever been. Pilates certainly helped with my dancing because Pilates improves balance, mobility, body and spatial awareness.




My Pilates teacher assessed me on my first 'one to one' session and told me that my muscles around my left hip and lower back were tight and inflexible causing an imbalance to my lower skeleton. I'd fallen on my right hip and buttock and this was where the injury was and I was overusing my left side to compensate.


My first experience of Pilates was that it was very technical, slow and methodical. I really did work up a sweat in the first few sessions! I was struck by how sleek, lithe and slim the rest of the class looked.


I moved from beginner, to intermediate and then advanced classes over a couple of years of attending classes every week.


I continued with Pilates and eventually qualified as a Pilates Instructor with Futurefit in 2017.




Pilates exercises are designed to work the muscles through three planes of motion so that the smaller muscles are able to do their job of balancing and aligning the body and the larger muscles are allowed to do their role of powering and stabilising the body. 


Back pain develops when the muscles, ligaments and tendons around the vertebral column (spine) become imbalanced by either getting too big or too small either through overuse, lack of use or injury. 


The human spine appears as an 'S' shape and perfectly engineered to support the body and various muscles and ligaments work as 'struts' to keep the spine in place.





If the body is pushed into the same direction regularly such as sitting hunched at a desk, then the  the spine starts to lose it's 'S' shape, muscles (struts) work harder to stabilise the spine, the larger muscles over compensate and the smaller balancing muscles stop working.  Eventually, the spine starts wobble like a stack of bricks, nerves get pinched as the fluid between the discs of the spine start to bulge  outwards and then back pain starts.




Pilates exercises are designed to work the body through three planes of movement - lateral, transverse and sagittal - forwards and backwards, side to side and rotational. This means that the larger muscles are trained to 'switch off' having worked hard trying to keep the spine in place and allowing the smaller balancing muscles to start doing their job of stabilising the spine. 


Back pain sufferers have coped with a lot of pain and discomfort and are naturally reluctant to do anything to make things worse therefore the exercises are usually done slowly starting at a very basic, gentle level and building up over time.If your GP, Chiropractor or Physiotherapist has suggested that you try Pilates then they know that you are ready for some post post-rehabilitation. So do give Pilates a try, it may help you! Pilates is a slow process which can take up ten lessons before you start feeling the benefit. 


Pilates not only helps to build up the back muscles, it also builds up the muscles in the core (powerhouse) that helps to support the back, builds the muscles in the hips that also stabilises the lower spine and helps with posture and flexibility bu making the joints more mobile with a great range of motion.




1). Make sure the Pilates Instructor is qualified and ask to see their teaching qualification and professional insurance. Ask them when they qualified as they will need to have  over 500 hours of teaching experience.


2). Look for smaller classes - no less than 10. An Instructor cannot monitor the safety of their class with more than twelve participants and would probably cap their class numbers to twelve.


3). Ask the Instructor if they teach one-to-one sessions and have one or two sessions before you go to the main class. Ask if he/she does posture assessments as part of the session. Ask the Instructor questions, tell them if any exercise hurts, they will always suggest an alternative.  


4). Make sure you get to complete a Health Declaration form before you go for your first session and make it clear to the Instructor about any injuries or pain you have or are experiencing. Your instructor needs to know as much as possible about you so they can give you the best of their skills and knowledge, This is what they trained for!


5). When going to a Pilates class don't be tempted to go to the back of the class, especially if you have been referred by a Health Specialist, always make yourself known the Instructor and go right to the front of the class, in front of the Instructor.  He or she will be able to see how you are coping and suggest easier or more challenging exercises.


6). If the room where the class is being held has mirrors - use them! I know nobody likes looking at themselves in a mirror but they certainly do help you to do the exercises correctly. You will be able to correct yourself and get the most out of your Pilates class.


7).  Don't try any exercises unless the Instructor as specifically told you to do them. Your back is precious and should be looked after. Just go at your own pace and, if there is any twinges, pain or discomfort - STOP! If you are in a class you will see people doing different exercises to you, don't be tempted to follow them.


8). Finally, don't be put off in class when you see people who seem better or more adept than you at Pilates, especially if you've been recovering for a long while and have found it difficult to get to the class or even down onto the mat. Pilates takes a lot of time and energy but the results are worth it.






If a group class is not possible or just not for you, then a Pilates private session is a worthwhile option. A private session is just you and the Instructor is money well spent if you have back problems. Your posture will be assessed, your worries and concerns about your health and back will be addressed and a specific Pilates programme will be tailored to you. You will be able to build a working relationship with an instructor who knows anatomy and knows what exercises will help you combat your back pain.





The Reformer is a great tool for those back sufferers who prefer to lie down and exercise, rather than join a class or who are not ready to try mat Pilates.


The Pilates Reformer was designed to rehabilitate injured patients who couldn't move to exercise their bodies. It is system of pulleys and springs that can be adjusted to suit the user, with a sliding carriage that allows the person to push away from a foot bar to exercise their legs, knees, hips and core. Overhead straps allow the user to exercise the upper body.


The beauty of the Reformer is that, as the exercises are done lying down, this means the core has to be engaged, thus protecting the lower spine but still enabling the user to exercise safely and effectively.









Pilates classes certainly did help solve my back problems but it took me several months to make that decision to sign up for classes and that was only after several weeks of of pain and discomfort. If only I'd taken the advice of my GP earlier! Thanks to Pilates and an understanding Pilates teacher I was able to carry on dancing. I'd noticed that I was more flexible, stronger, fitter after taking up Pilates and my improved balance and posture made big difference to my dancing technique.


 I was so impressed that I signed up to train as a Pilates teacher and devote two years and a lot of money to train to help other to become more pain free, flexible, stronger and more supple. I am now learning to teach the Pilates Reformer to help those people who find it hard to get up and down off a mat or who have injuries.


If you decide to try Pilates go to several one-to-one sessions first so you can used to the technique of Pilates and learn to do the exercises safely, find a small class with a qualified Instructor.


Try the Pilates Reformer for an intense but safe workout.


Given time, Pilates will really help to take back pain away, give it try!

























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