Pilates Saved Me

Pilates Saved Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Back Pain!

Pilates Saved Me

I knew I was in trouble as soon as it happened. At sixty-four and halfway through a glorious vacation in New Zealand, I bent over to put clean clothes in my suitcase and then immediately straightened up as my back went into a spasm.

I cried out, “Oh no! Peter, I’ve pulled my back,” hobbled to a sturdy chair, and sat down gingerly. “What should I do?”

My husband came across the room to me. “Where does it hurt?” he asked.

“My low back feels like I’ve been hit with a baseball bat,” I replied.

He touched my back and I winced. “That makes it hurt more,” I said.

“You should lie down on your side with your knees bent. Things may ease up if you are not moving. Let’s see if an ice pack helps.” He got ice and applied it to my back. Gradually the excruciating pain decreased… a bit.

By slowing down my schedule, I managed to see the sights. The unrelenting discomfort was a constant companion. I was determined to tough it out.

I said to my husband, “Can you please carry our suitcases? I can’t lift anything without it hurting more.”

The thirteen-hour flight home was miserable. Peter said, “You should walk as much as possible on the plane.” I found there are limits to how much walking one can do on a 747. I ended up needing a wheelchair to meet me after our connecting flight from Los Angeles to Colorado the next morning.

We had been through similar issues with my husband’s spine. Ten years ago, he developed leg pain with tingling in both feet and eventually had surgery.

I didn’t want an operation unless absolutely necessary. I saw my primary care physician, did six weeks of physical therapy, used ibuprofen, and quit lifting anything that weighed more than a carton of milk. I wasn’t much improved.

The physical therapist said, “We’ve done all we can.”

The distress in my back and now down my leg was awful. I walked with a limp, constantly aware of the torment. I couldn’t go hiking or biking. The pain pills didn’t help; I was miserable. It was time to face reality.

We went to Denver to see Peter’s neurosurgeon. I had my MRI in hand as my family practice physician said, “I’m afraid you’re having the same problem Peter had ten years ago.”

As Peter drove to my appointment, I said, “I’m dreading surgery. If there is any other option, I’ll try it. An operation scares the heck out of me.”

It seemed to take forever, but an hour and a half later Peter parked in front of the neurosurgeon’s building. In minutes, I was being examined.

After going over my films and repeating some tests, the doctor said, “Okay, I have good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?”

“Tell me the bad news. That way whatever the good news is will help cheer me up.”

“You have two discs that are partially out. If this were six months down the line, I’d say it’s time for surgery. The good news is, at this stage there’s a 50% chance they’ll go back in.”

I thought out loud. “There is a new Pilates class in a physical therapy practice in Fort Collins. Do you think it would help?” I knew Pilates works on the deep muscles of the abdomen.

“Yes, it’s known to strengthen the core muscles, which support the back. Avoid moves that aggravate the stabbing pain down your leg.” Then he said, “I can refer you for a steroid shot to help with the pain.”

His office manager scheduled that appointment in Fort Collins.

I was elated! Riding home, I told Peter, “I’ll sign up for Pilates. I’m lean, but could lose a few pounds; I’m not sure if it will help, but it feels right. And I’ll give up digging in my garden.”

Four days after the steroid injection, my pain much improved, I went to the first class. The instructor was a slender woman, a physical therapist in her early thirties who really knew her stuff. Before things started, I introduced myself.

“Hi, Cindy, I’m here because of back problems. I’ll need your help knowing if any of the moves might cause further injury.”

Cindy listened sympathetically. “It sounds like you’ve got good motivation to take the class. I’ll tell you which exercises you shouldn’t do and give you some substitutes. Skip anything that causes you pain.”

As we went through the Pilates moves, Cindy told me adaptations. “Don’t even try the ‘rolling like a ball’ exercise; it squashes your vertebrae like a jelly donut and is exactly what you must not do. However, tightening your abs and balancing on your butt with your feet off the floor will strengthen your core muscles without hurting your back.” Lo and behold, I could do that!

I liked the class. I lost ten pounds and transferred to the Pilates classes at the gym we belonged to. I enjoyed the new instructor and she incorporated the alternatives I had learned from Cindy. I attended sessions twice a week. Initially, my back symptoms didn’t change much but I started to loosen up some of my muscles and always stopped doing anything that hurt.

It was a compatible group of Pilates regulars. Several were old friends. We began meeting in the gym’s coffee shop after class; our camaraderie was a potent motivator.

After eighteen months of twice-weekly classes, I declared to the instructor, “Pilates has saved me from back surgery.”

She nodded and said, “It takes about that long to begin to see results. I’m pleased you’ve made progress. Keep it up and you may never need that operation.”

After four years, I’d had only one flare-up of back pain. I increased the classes to three times per week. Now it’s been six years. My back has returned to normal.

I’ve done stretching and a few Pilates moves on the days I’m not in class and incorporated breathing exercises for stress management.

I’m convinced that Pilates and a positive attitude saved me from back surgery. I’m committed to doing those exercises until I die… which, with my strong healthy body will likely be many years from now.

~ Lynnette C. Jung ~

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