Back pain. It affects millions of people nationwide, plaguing their daily lives. Some of it is short-lasted, while for others, it’s chronic and seemingly never-ending. While NSAIDs, muscle relaxants, and narcotics can temporarily relieve the pain, these options aren’t a solution for everyone.
In an effort to alleviate back pain without medication, many people turn to exercise, including yoga and pilates. The benefits of yoga and pilates on back pain can be excellent, but how do you know which one you should do? Which one is better for back pain?
Let’s find out.
Back Pain Causes and Treatments
Back pain can result from various activities, incidents, or conditions, including accidents, falls, lifting something heavy improperly, inflammatory arthritis disorders, and age-related degenerative spine changes. Low back pain is widespread among weight lifters, as certain lifts place a serious strain on the lower back.
The pain can be chronic, lasting for years, or acute, only lasting a few days or weeks. Either way, it’s uncomfortable. Thankfully, there are several ways to treat back pain, although the proper treatment will hinge on your situation. Common treatments include:
- Pain relievers, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen
- Muscle relaxants to relieve stiffness in the muscles
- Topical pain relievers, such as creams, salves, and ointments applied to the skin
- Narcotics, including opioids
- Antidepressants, such as duloxetine and amitriptyline
However, taking or topically applying medication may not be a long-term solution for some folks. In these cases, more serious alternatives might be necessary, including surgery. But surprisingly enough, some folks can alleviate their back pain through exercises such as yoga or pilates.
Do Yoga and Pilates Reduce Back Pain?
Yoga and pilates can help alleviate back pain, each in unique ways. Each has its place in the world of pain relief and completes the process in different ways, so one might be better for certain situations than the other.
For example, yoga aids in reducing back pain by helping you increase strength throughout your body. As you strengthen and elongate your back, abdominal, and upper thigh muscles, you’ll, directly and indirectly, work toward supporting your spine and alleviating pain.
But how does strengthening those muscles aid in relieving back pain? It comes down to the strength and flexibility of those muscles. If your abdomen and back muscles are weak and you rarely use them, you may deal with excessive stress on your lower back. This leads to back pain, as your muscles cannot adequately support the back, thus stressing the spine.
Now, to pilates. Like yoga, pilates can be incredibly beneficial for those with back pain. It’s handy for individuals with back pain due to the degeneration of discs and joints, as it helps correct posture and alignment problems. As your posture improves, the joints and discs in your spine don’t put up with as much wear and tear, leading to less back pain.
On top of that, pilates can help you identify the poses and postures you hold throughout daily life that might result in pain. By identifying and understanding the root causes that result in back pain, you can adjust to ensure your body remains comfortable and pain-free.
While yoga and pilates can work wonders for individuals with back pain, it’s important to note that it isn’t a catch-all fix. Instead, it’s crucial to thoroughly understand your body and the root cause of the pain. Failing to properly understand these things and practicing pilates or yoga can cause more harm than good, so ensure you understand before you start.
Should I do Yoga or Pilates With Back Pain?
Yoga and Pilates can be beneficial for addressing back pain, but it’s important to understand your limits. While you can do both, you should stick to moves that gently stretch and strengthen your back instead of those that could aggravate the pain.
If you’re practicing pilates or yoga with a bad back or back pain, avoid these moves:
- Forward folds, either standing or seated
- Hugging your knees and lifting your head (nose to knee)
- Rolling moves
- Twisting poses or those requiring drastic flexion in the spine
- Poses with deep extensions through the spine
The poses in this list can do more harm than good when dealing with a sore, painful back. You want to avoid overstressing the muscles of your back. Instead, you should seek out gentler, more controlled poses that offer slight stretches and work to strengthen supporting muscles. This way, you can build strength and gently stretch your back without worsening things.
While there are numerous moves you should avoid when doing yoga or pilates with back pain, there are a couple of postures that can help, including:
- Downward dog: Although you should avoid forward folds, this pose doesn’t overly stress the lower back. Instead, it offers a gentler stretch through the back extensors while supporting your spine.
- Child’s pose: This one is excellent for gently stretching through the back. Since your knees are bent beneath you, you avoid the deep stretch through the hamstrings and back. Your back and torso are supported by your legs, allowing your back to stretch to relieve built-up pain gently.
- Cat and cow pose: This pose is a great way to gently warm your back muscles, loosening them and alleviating pain. The slow, steady back-and-forth motion takes the muscles of your back through a calm warm-up, ensuring you don’t overtax the sore areas.
- Triangle pose: This pose helps strengthen your back, core, and legs without stressing the back muscles. You’ll feel a stretch through the side of your body, from your IT band to your obliques.
What Types of Yoga and Pilates Are Best for Lower Back Pain?
Certain types of yoga and pilates can help you in your journey to a pain-free back, while others will hinder or reverse your progress. Because of this, it’s important to be mindful of which type you choose.
Yoga for Back Pain
When practicing yoga to alleviate back pain, we recommend sticking to gentler forms. Lyengar yoga can be a good starting point, as it’s slower-paced and prioritizes proper alignment. Instructors of these courses are trained in anatomy, so they understand the right form necessary to support the body safely.
Restorative yoga is another excellent choice, as it helps relax and ease tense, sore muscles. This practice focuses on relaxation, restoration, and rejuvenation, employing various yoga props to ensure you remain comfortable throughout the session. Many of these poses occur either sitting or lying on your yoga mat.
You could also incorporate Hatha yoga, as it takes a milder approach that prioritizes long, slow holds. Since it’s nowhere near as demanding as some types of yoga, including Bikram and Ashtanga, it can be a good option for those with back pain.
In these classes, you’ll hold the poses for longer, so there’s no need to worry about keeping up with a rapid-paced assortment of postures and poses. If you participate in these classes, we recommend notifying your instructor of your back pain and asking about alternatives to moves that could aggravate the pain.
Pilates for Back Pain
Like yoga, pilates comes in various styles. You can find pilates classes that are specifically geared toward lower back pain online. If you prefer exercising at home, this is an excellent place to start. There are dozens of YouTube videos and websites with dedicated routines designed to help you tackle your back pain.
However, you can also find formal classes that teach varying types of pilates that can help with back pain. For example, Stott Pilates is geared specifically toward restoring the original curvature of the spine and protecting, realigning, and improving the muscles surrounding the joints.
Given the design of this particular type, it’s excellent for those recovering from or dealing with pain in their backs, necks, and shoulders. It features various tools to help you in your journey, including exercise balls, dumbbells, rings, exercise bands, and more.
Classical and contemporary pilates offers back-pain-relieving benefits, as they target strength, flexibility, and balance in a gentler approach to the practice.
Clinical pilates can be another solution to aid in your back pain relief journey. Physiotherapists often use this type of pilates to help patients recover from various injuries and health conditions, including chronic back pain.
So, Which One is Best for Back Pain?
The answer to the debate of yoga versus pilates for back pain is ultimately up to you. It hinges on your personal needs and situation, as everyone is different. For example, yoga might be the better option for individuals who want to prioritize relaxation and recovery while working to alleviate back pain.
Conversely, pilates might be the best fit for those who want to focus on strengthening their muscles and improving posture to reduce pain. It all depends on your situation and what you feel comfortable and capable of doing. If you’d like, you can mix the two together for a well-rounded approach or stick with one over the other.
If you’re new to both, we recommend trying a few classes of each to determine your preferences. Once you find your rhythm in one style or the other, stick to that one. If you find you like both, incorporate a couple of each. Do the option that works best for your body because that’s all that matters!