Pilates for back pain – solution to the nightmare?

PilatesBy Amy Jaya

When any of us suffer from back pain it usually presents not only a physical limitation, but a psychological impediment too.  The physical limitations can mean even the basic tasks become very difficult or even impossible.  Back pain will either slow us down or stop us doing important tasks altogether.  Psychologically it can lead to depression in severe cases.  Until you experience the pain you can’t really know what it’s like.  We take our mobility for granted.

If I stop and reflect on what back pain would do to my lifestyle it gets a little scary.  As a personal trainer I move around so much and obviously bend and stretch to demonstrate movements to clients, as well as picking up weights – and that’s just work.  Then there are all the times I get in and out of my car and do a myriad of things at home such as the washing or making the bed – all things that require freedom from restriction and pain to be completed.  I can only imagine how hard it would be for someone with chronic back pain who had small children.

I have had clients over the years with back pain, and I can tell you, they do it tough.  One of the reasons I find instructing Pilates rewarding is the impact it can have on back pain and pain in other areas of the body such as neck, shoulders and head.  Although it is undoubtedly the case that more research needs to be done on the efficacy of Pilates, there are research results that demonstrate its effectiveness with pain, such as back and neck pain.

Back pain is often associated with weakness in core muscles.  Pilates aims to strengthen those core muscles and lengthen the spine to avoid the compression of joints which can lead to lower back pain.  Pilates teaches students to activate, and thereby strengthen, core muscles throughout exercises.

Studies such as the one by Gladwell and her team in 2006 entitled “Does a Program of Pilates Improve Chronic Non-Specific Low Back Pain?” published in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation found that a six week Pilates program improved the symptoms of subjects with non specific low back pain.   A Doctoral Dissertation published by Horvath in 2005 entitled “Efficacy of Pilates Exercises as Therapeutic Intervention in Treating Patient with Low Back Pain” University of Tenessee, found Pilates just as useful as traditional lumbar stabilisation exercises in relieving lower back pain and improving function and core stability.

The back RX is a lumbar stabilisation program aimed at improving flexibility, strength and endurance in people with discogenic low back pain.  Pilates based exercises and principles form the foundation of the stabilisation exercises in the program.  A study by Vlad, Bhat and Tarabichi in 2007 entitled “Role of the Back Rx Exercise Program in Diskogenic Low Back Pain: A Prospective Randomized Trial” published in Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, found that 70% of subjects in the Back RX program group reported a successful outcome re: back pain after 1 year compared with only 33% in the control group.  The Back RX group also spent less time off work and reported using lower levels of pain medication.  In the Back RX group, recurrence of symptoms only occurred in 17% of participants whereas symptom recurrence was experienced by 48% of the control group.

Other studies have also found Pilates helping with neck pain and headaches (Moffet & McLean, 2006), and knee joint rehabilitation post ACL repair and joint replacement (Bryan & Hawson, 2003).

These studies demonstrate what a powerful impact Pilates can have on improving the life of people who are struggling with pain.   Whilst more research needs to be done these studies show Joseph Pilates was well ahead of his time in being able to create an exercise system that could aid pain rehabilitation.  For those of us who have back pain it can be an incredible burden to live with.  These studies show that, for many, Pilates could offer light at the end of the tunnel.

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