After recovering from lower back pain caused by a disc bulge in my spine two months into my postpartum, I was determined to get healthy and strong again. I was active before I got pregnant and remained so during pregnancy. It surprised me how different my body had become after childbirth, every muscle and ligament felt out of place. The baby weight, the strenuous delivery, the heavy tasks of breastfeeding and baby carrying all quietly stressed my spine without me realizing it until I started to have back pain after breastfeeding around the clock. I was alarmed once I started having the unfamiliar back pain that I never experienced before. With proper resting and physiotherapy, the pain went away in less than two weeks.
Then I decided to take a weekly private Pilates class based on a recommendation that Pilates keeps back pain away. I read online that people with back pain should be cautious about taking yoga classes because some yoga moves can be harmful for the spine. I was thinking Pilates might be different since it’s widely believed to help with back pain. It was my first time taking a Pilates class so I did not know what to expect. The instructor was certified and had many years of experience teaching Pilates. I trusted that I would be in good hands, especially since it was a private class so I thought the class would be tailored to my body conditions. I was mostly homebound, taking care of my baby for the previous three months, hence I was excited about exercising again. I wanted to be fit for myself and my daughter.
Little did I know that this class would paralyze my life in ways I could never imagine.
In the first class, I shared with the instructor about the existing medical condition of my spine and that I just gave birth at about three months ago. She nodded as if she was absorbing the information. She then shared with me about her experience working with people with back pain and how they got better after taking Pilates with her. She sounded assertive and professional. I was convinced that she would help me regain my lost strength and stay away from back pain. For the rest of the class, we did some breathing exercise and light stretching. I felt good afterwards.
In the second class, the real drill began. The very first set of exercise was sit-ups from a lying position on a barrel with straight legs, curling the entire body up from upside down until the head was hanging forward. The instructor demonstrated it and her move looked perfect. I read that sit-ups were not recommended for people with back pain before. Then I thought this was not a normal sit-up on the ground, this was done on a special equipment under the guidance of a professional, she must have modified it to make sure it was only beneficial. I was so convinced that I did not raise any doubt. Based on her instructions, I did dozens of sit-ups and its many variations for the whole 40-minute class. I did not feel any pain during the exercise although I felt strained.
That same evening when I went out for a walk, I felt some dull pain in my lower spine that I had never experienced before. I was puzzled. I attributed it to the normal fluctuations of back pain recovery. The new pain persisted for the whole week, would be aggravated even after light walking. I was upset and hoped that the pain could go away on its own like before.
At the beginning of the next Pilates class, I told the instructor that I had a newly developed backache. She assured me that with a few more Pilates classes, the pain should go away in a few weeks. I appreciated that assurance and encouragement. We then started the same routine, sit-ups and its many variations. But this time I felt there was a clear strain in my lower back when I did the sit-ups. I asked the instructor about it. She did not have a clear answer and dismissed it as something normal when doing exercise. I decided to dig a bit more about what muscles I was training by doing sit-ups on a barrel. The instructor told me that I was mainly using my upper back muscles. The class continued, and the instructor did what many fitness trainers would do, she challenged me to push my limit and asked me to do a few more every time after I completed a set of exercise. I followed through as a good student. By the middle of the class, I started to lose my balance and my back started to tighten up. It was a 60-minute class this time. And I finished the whole class.
Right after the class, I felt out of balance and the pain started to slowly aggravate throughout the day. By the end of the day, I could not keep my body straight. I could not fall asleep that night at all because of the excruciating pain. It then occurred to me what the Pilates classes could have done to my spine although the instructor looked like the last person who would do any harm to my body.
I found out later that sit-ups are not advised even for a normal spine because they are one of the most strenuous moves to the joints of the spine. And should be especially avoided for people with back pain, and women in postpartum. A single sit-up can potentially cause the amount of stress required to herniate a disc in the spine. I did dozens and dozens of them continuously in two classes a week apart. And the instructor made sure that my body was bent to the maximum extent, and stressing the spine to the max.
On hindsight, there was no stretch or warm up exercise at the beginning of the class hence my spine was in a shock when it was suddenly exposed to high stress. Also my core muscles had become extremely weak due to pregnancy and delivery, the spine would take up all the stress if the exercise was beyond what my core muscles could hold up. And my newly healed spine was already weaker and more prone to injury compared to a normal spine.
The consequences of pushing the limit of my spine blindly were catastrophic. One of my discs ruptured and the disc material started to leak out causing massive inflammation. Hence the pain became much more intense, more widespread and did not dissipate easily like before. It would also flare up much more easily. At one flare-up, my body was fully locked and I could not move at all and had to be sent to the hospital in an emergency ambulance. My quality of life dropped to the rock bottom. I could not walk long enough to leave the house for months. I was not able to sit down for a meal for more than one year. My social life was completely gone. My experience as a new mother was greatly jeopardized. It was impossible to carry my baby in fact I could not carry anything. Most devastating of all, my plan to have a second baby was indefinitely delayed. I spent a fortune on doctor visits, physio and functional training. My journey of recovery is full of pain, confusion, and frustration, and it will continue to haunt me for years to come. I still sob when I think of how I let someone did so much damage to my body. I stay hopeful that one day I can be pain free.
Pilates is long believed to help relieve back pain and is frequently recommended by doctors and physios. In theory Pilates could be very helpful in strengthening core muscles and hence improve the stability of the spine and hence prevent back pain. In practice, if it is not tailored to an individual or taught correctly, especially for a weaker spine in postpartum or an injured spine, it can further strain the core muscles and cause the existing problem to deteriorate.
I learnt it the very hard way that generic health advice might not apply to you, or even do harm to you if they are followed blindly out of context. No back pain is the same. The root causes could be temporary muscle strain, arthritis, a ruptured disc or something else. And also even for the same underlying cause, different people can react differently to the same remedy. Similarly a vegan diet might cause iron deficiency in some but not others. Weightlifting can cause back problems for some but not others. Every person is shaped by their unique genes, environment and lifestyle and so on. It’s extremely important to understand your body and know what works best for you.
Hi, I am sorry to hear about your experience. I read the whole article. I must say you are a very obedient student. You followed every instruction of your instructor. You didn’t even question. I have faced some similar problems with my instructor.I am facing upper back pain for many years. I also decided to do pilates. For a few days, there was no pain. After some days, my pain started. My condition was terrible. After that, I didn’t continue the classes. I think you should be more careful about that.
Thanks for sharing your experience. By reading this, many people will be aware of. I completely agree with you that “It’s extremely important to understand your body and know what works best for you.”
Get Well Soon. 🙂