According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 90 percent of adults in the U.S. will experience back pain at some time in their lives. Of these, 2 percent will suffer from a herniated disc, a condition that can be both excruciating and debilitating. The mind-body philosophy of Pilates focuses on exercises that work deep postural muscles, which can help strengthen your back and significantly reduce back pain, even in cases of herniation.
If you have a herniated disc, one of the rubbery pads between your spinal vertebrae has ruptured, allowing the interior to push through and irritate nearby nerves. Pilates is one of many exercises people have turned to for relief from herniated disc pain. It’s named after its creator, Joseph Pilates, and focuses on development of your “power house” or core, including your abdominal, gluteal, and paraspinal muscles. The basic technique uses a controlled range of motion while concentrating on breathing and concentration, with exercises performed on a mat or specialized equipment like balls and chairs.
Beth Glosten, an M.D. and certified Pilates instructor in Redmond, Washington, believes that Pilates can help improve the strength, flexibility and suppleness of muscles in your hips and shoulder girdle. Pilates exercises can also improve any posture asymmetries you have, which will reduce wear and tear on your spine and the pain it causes. You’ll also learn to change movement habits or any excess tension that can stress your spine. This will help preserve neutral alignment and prevent future pain from developing.
If you have significant back problems and pain, you may need one-on-one sessions with a qualified Pilates instructor twice a week until you learn the proper form, according to Dr. Glosten. Once you’re comfortable with the techniques, you can move to weekly sessions with practices in-between. You may not see full results immediately, as it can take time to learn how to use your muscles properly to support your back.
Before starting a Pilates program, consult your health care provider. When you’re given the okay, make sure your Pilates instructor is knowledgeable about back problems such as disc pain. Some of the movements in Pilates are challenging and you may need to avoid them if you have significant back pain or a degenerative disc disease. Dr. Glosten notes that, as a general rule, you should avoid any exercises that push your spine into extreme bending or extending or any that combine flexing with side bending or twisting your spine.
Researchers in Italy published a study in the September 2006 issue of “Europa medicophysica” comparing a form of Pilates to the traditional Back School intervention therapy, a structured program of education about low back problems. They concluded that the Pilates group had better compliance because of subjective responses such as improvement of symptoms and satisfaction with treatment. Another 2006 study in Canada, published in “Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy,” found that a Pilates-based therapeutic exercise protocol used by patients with chronic low back pain produced significantly lower levels of disability and pain compared to the control group.