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Take Your Pick: Yoga, Tai Chi or Pilates for Back Pain Relief?

Fri, 01/10/2014 - 10:00am | by Guest Author

If back pain is always interrupting your life, you’re not alone—the Mayo Clinic reports that back pain is one of the top reasons people call the doctor, hampering between 60-80 percent of adults at some point in life. And according to a Consumer Reports study, 58 percent of back pain sufferers wished that they had done more exercise to prevent or alleviate their backaches. The good news? Depending on your type of back pain, there are exercises that provide relief and improve spinal health; most notably, Tai Chi, Yoga and Pilates.

So which exercise is best for your particular type of back pain?

Tai Chi

The American College of Rheumatology ran a study with back pain sufferers in Australia, demonstrating that this ancient Chinese form of slow, gentle and deliberate martial arts-like moves is helpful for back pain related to osteoarthritis and other degenerative causes. The study group showed that biweekly 40-minute Tai Chi sessions relieved participants’ back pain and reduced their levels of disability. This form of exercise improved joint flexibility and improved balance as well.

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Tai Chi instructor Cate Morrill says that Specific Tai Chi movements like "Brush Dust Against the Wind," "Wind Rolls with Lotus Leaves," "Wave Hands Like Clouds" and "White Crane Spreads Wings" gently build strength in muscles that support core strength, especially in the waist and the sides, which are often underused.


The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says Yoga can be an excellent help for lower back pain sufferers, as long as poses are adapted for those with back pain. Yoga, with its ancient roots in India, comes in many different styles, each with varying emphasis on stretching into certain poses, breathing and meditation. So choosing the right one for you can be confusing. Strenuous forms, like Ashtanga and Bikram may cause more pain. Ananda and Anusara are gentler, however. These styles synchronize breathing and stretching to improve flexibility, circulation and relaxation to reduce pain.

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Yoga instructor and Yoga Journal author Julie Gudmestad advises back pain sufferers to avoid standard forward bending poses initially. Instead, she recommends starting with modified versions of the “Supine hand-to-foot pose, Variation I” “Extended hand-to-foot pose,” “Wide-legged forward bend,” “Supine bound angle pose,” “Supine hand-to-foot pose, Variation II,” and the “Corpse pose.”


Developed by German gymnast Joseph Pilates in the mid-20th century, Pilates is a fitness system that focuses heavily on developing core strength in the hip, abdominal and back muscles. The School of Science and Health at University of Western Sydney, Australia recently ran a study showing the effectiveness of Pilates for back pain associated with degenerative discs. Because stronger muscles take stress off of discs, Pilates proved helpful. They cautioned, however, that with roots in ballet and gymnastics, Pilates can be strenuous, so students need an instructor mindful of their back situation.

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Physical therapist Kathleen Shirley of Laser Spine Institute echoes that advice, saying that back pain patients should get initial personal instruction in any of these exercises to learn proper form for the best results. On Shirley’s series of post-surgical exercise videos, she adds that if any particular exercise hurts, stop and try something else.

Guest Author Margaret Riddell

Margaret is a health and wellness enthusiast who blogs about living a healthy, positive lifestyle.


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