There are many potential triggers of back pain and, as Pilates teachers, it is beyond our training to diagnose a cause for anyone’s pain. Nonetheless, there are some typical mechanisms for a number of common problems and our job often means using tools (exercises) to address these problematic mechanisms.
Many years ago I had a back problem that began with my lower back ‘seizing up’. I felt stuck in an awkward position and it was impossible for me to work. It was frightening because I didn’t know how long it would last and if there would be permanent damage; I was told that I would have to give up the sport that I loved: and I was self-employed – not working meant no income.
It took a while but once someone had suggested I try Pilates I was on the road to a complete recovery – like many teachers, I became a committed fan of Pilates because it helped me so much.
Looking back, I now have a much better understanding of what was happening to me at the time – one of those typical mechanisms that I mentioned earlier. Something happened to compress one of the shock absorbing discs in my lower back (probably a combination of manual work and a lot of running) – our brains generally recognise that compression as a problem and may then ‘turn off’ the muscles that might contribute. The trouble is that those muscles use compression to support our spines and, because our bodies always seek support (‘stability’) our brains ‘turn on’ other muscles to do the stabilising job, and they will often spasm in protest at doing the wrong job.
It’s a bit like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon – that’s Sir Mo Farah’s job, and Usain won’t be happy.
If this happens we may feel that we need to rest, or that we need to stretch – both very natural responses. However, what we really need is for the support muscles (Sir Mo) to go back to work and to take the pressure off the spasming muscles (Usain).
This is where Pilates can really help – because one of the main things that a lot of Pilates exercises require is for us to stabilise our spines while we move our limbs. It’s a great way of helping our brain’s recognise that the appropriate support is in place, so overworked muscles can calm down and the system can rebalance.