According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetime.
It’s the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days. Back pain can be quite severe in the acute phase, and when it becomes chronic it can alter the quality of your life and be quite resistant to therapy. A new study suggests that Pilates can improve disability, pain, flexibility and balance in patients who suffer with low back pain.
What is Pilates?
Pilates is one exercise approach that consists of low-impact movements that incorporate flexibility, muscular strength and balance. These exercises can be performed on a bed-like machine (reformer) which has a series of springs and pulleys attached to a moving carriage (in some cases you will be in a standing position and other times you will be lying on your back), or you can perform Pilates using your own body weight and resistance on a floor mat.
A Pilates’ routine will usually include a series of movements, with a focus on using and strengthening your abdominal core musculature. This exercise discipline originated to help ballet dancers rehabilitate from injury, using non-weight-bearing exercises.
The many benefits of Pilates
Pilates is appropriate for beginners through advanced and experienced fitness enthusiasts. Pilates has been credited with helping to improve core strength and stability. It can also help to improve posture and balance, help to improve flexibility and range-of-motion, and it has been credited with helping individuals who suffer with back pain.
It is important to recognize that Pilates is not typically aerobic in nature (though a beginner may have an elevated heart rate), and for the most part it’s not weight-bearing exercise, so it will not help to consistently build or maintain bone density. A balanced exercise program should include aerobic (cardiovascular) training, resistance training with weights, and other modalities like Pilates.
Causes of low back pain
Most chronic back pain originates from a mechanical cause that is acute or that occurs over time and that does not resolve. These can include:
- Sprains and strains
- Intervertebral disc degeneration
- Herniated or ruptured disc
- Radiculopathy (caused by compression, inflammation and/or injury to a spinal nerve root).
- A traumatic injury to the spinal column
- Spinal stenosis
- Skeletal irregularities
There are also risk factors for back pain that can include: pregnancy, carrying a heavy backpack (kids), genetic factors including arthritis, being overweight and having a job that requires a lot of lifting, pushing or pulling. Being very inactive and sitting for long periods can also result in chronic back pain, especially if you have poor posture when sitting. Stress can also cause muscle tension that can result in lower back pain.
New study investigates effects of Pilates on chronic low back pain
The randomized controlled study involved 54 subjects with chronic non-specific low back pain. Subjects were divided into two groups. One group was led through a Pilates exercise program in the lab setting, while the other group received information in a printed leaflet. The subjects had specific physical baseline assessments before the study started, and were evaluated upon completion of the study. Assessment testing included:
To assess change in their disability – The Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire and Oswestry Disability Index
To assess changes in pain levels – The Visual Analogue Scales
To assess changes in lumbar mobility – The modified Schober’s Test (Schober’s)
To assess changes in flexibility – The finger-to-floor test
To assess balance changes – The single-limb-stance test
Study results showed that upon completion of an eight week, guided Pilates’ program, subjects in the exercise group had improvements in level of disability, pain, flexibility and balance in patients with non-specific chronic low back pain. The control group had some minor improvements.
Finding a Pilates instructor
Exercising with a Pilates’ trainer who is not experienced at handling lower back pain issues can put you at risk of experiencing more damage to the affected area and more pain. Make sure your trainer has accumulated several hundred hours in Pilates’ instruction education, is certified, and is experienced handling low back pain. The Pilates Guild is an international organization dedicated to the preservation of Authentic Pilates. It is a good starting resource if you are interested in more information.
You can perform certain Pilates’ exercises at your work desk. It’s also important to understand how yoga and Pilates differ and how each can help when it comes to certain health conditions, including back pain.
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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she’s been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.