My last blog was about putting up with back pain and why that’s not a good idea. On a much more positive note lets have a look at why Pilates is so great for managing back pain. It goes without saying that any pain should be diagnosed by a medical professional reducing the chances of aggravating rather than relieving your discomfort.
Did your mother ever tell you to stand up straight? She was onto something here. She probably also told you to eat your vegetables too but now we might pay a nutritionist to advise us on superfoods!
Poor, slumped and collapsed postures standing and especially sitting place a tremendous amount of strain on our tissues. If muscles are held in a shortened position for a prolonged period other muscles will have to work overtime in order to support the weight of the surrounding structures. The body’s energy efficient response to this is to lay down extra collagen into the overworked muscle to make it more like a ligament, allowing it to support the same weight without expending much energy through prolonged muscular contraction. So rather than having well balanced muscles around a joint we have shortened and weakened muscles on one side versus overly long muscles that have lost their ability to contract as muscles fibres are replaced by collagen.
Hence we end up with a poor balance of muscular control around many joints. The resulting lack of stability around our sensitive joints can result in poorly controlled movements with painful muscular spasms as the body quickly tries to gain control.
Pilates teaches you to lengthen your body in every possible direction. Even some of the starting positions for many exercises are hard work! This continual striving to find more space in your body is decompressing the joints and distributing the load of either movement or static held positions. In the Pilates mat exercises its just you and gravity. On the equipment the springs act as gravity for you to push and lengthen out against. A reformer is literally trying to squash and compress you giving you some feedback to lengthen out against. Thats why the equipment has the funky looking straps and handles so your limbs can experience this as well as your spine. Once you get back on the mat again after using the equipment your body knows what to do, as you reach a leg away for Single Leg Stretch you keep reaching into a now imaginary strap.
Pilates brings your smaller supporting muscles to the party. Too often these small stabilisers get edged out of our movement patterns by the bigger movement producing muscles. Ever had to drive a car without power steering when you are used to having it? Thats what your body is doing when the stabilising muscles are neglected. It takes so much more effort to move the damn thing around! Advanced Pilates practitioners make the harder exercises look easy and flowing. They are still working hard but no part of the body is working harder than it has to.
Quality of movement is really important in Pilates. Once you start to find and use your stabilising muscles movement becomes much smoother and more controlled. Many of our stabilising muscles fine tune out movements but are also rich in nerve endings that send information back to our central nervous system. Our movements are then better calibrated, and of course smoother movement is far less likely to cause pain. Not having this feedback is like trying to negotiate the world with fogged up glasses.
One of the greatest gifts Pilates gives people with back pain is the ability to take back some control of their situation. Back pain is frightening and frustrating in equal measures with many chronic long term sufferers becoming depressed when it limits their previous level of activity. It’s a real privilege to work with this population as they learn how movement is going to help rather than hinder them.