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Pilates for Neck and Back Pain

Updated: May 22, 2022

In the United States, the most common diagnoses for neck and back pain are musculoskeletal disorder, degenerative disc disease, sciatica, and arthritis. There are a variety of reasons why neck and back pain happens but, for each condition just mentioned, the prescription usually includes movement.

Pilates For Neck And Back Pain

Pilates is a gentle way to ease neck and back pain by focusing on improving posture, strengthening the abdominal muscles, and easing tension throughout the neck and back.

Pilates works in a very holistic way, treating the whole body in nearly every exercise. Because the neck and back are very closely related, if there’s pain in your neck, there’s usually something out of wack down the rest of your spine too.

And as my college anatomy professor always said, “when there a zig there’s a zag”. So, looking at the typical posture of many people who sit at a computer, look down at a cell phone, or simply just sit for hours on end, you often see tension in the shoulders, weak muscles in the front of the neck, a rounded back, hollow chest, protruding abdominals, and a weak/tight lower back. Luckily, in Pilates we treat these areas in many different ways.

In today’s post I’ll be sharing a roundup of Pilates exercises that can help ease neck and back pain. Some exercises you’ve likely done before such as The Hundred, Rolling Like a Ball, Neck Roll, and The Wall but, I’ll include some others that you may not have done before such as, Spider Up The Wall, The Pre-Pilates Series, and the Magic Circle Head Exercises.

The Hundred(modified)

For Neck Tension: Lying on your back, knees bent with your feet flat on the floor, bring your chin downward as much as possible. Then, lift your head slightly - at most 1cm. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds. Repeat three times. Why? This simple exercise will increase strength in the sternocleidomastoid muscles along the front of your neck. And at the same time, release tension down the back of your neck and shoulders.

Rolling Like A Ball

If you have a neck or back injury, avoid this exercise. Also avoid this exercise if you have osteoporosis. All of the rolling exercises(Open Leg Rocker, Seal,etc) can be great for loosening up the lower back. Try your best to roll as smoothly as possible in order to get the most out of this exercise. The more you use your abdominals, the more stretch you will get in your lower back. Pro Tip: If your back is really tight, hold onto the backs of your thighs, instead of the ankles.

Neck Roll

The name of this exercise might lead you to believe a simple roll of the neck will bring you relief. Not the case. This exercise is designed to strengthen the upper back muscles, namely the rhomboids, which support the cervical spine. When these muscles are strong, chances are your head will sit right on top of your shoulders, not forward of them, causing even more neck tension. Instruction: Lying on your stomach, elbows bent narrow into your sides, hands flat on the mat next to your shoulders. Slightly lift your hands off the mat and lift the head and shoulders a few inches(keep the bosom on the mat). The goal is to create length in the spine, instead of simply craning your neck. Be sure to support your back with your abdominals, if it hurts— you’ve come up too high. Once you’ve lifted, stay for a few seconds then lower everything back down. Repeat 3-5x.

The Wall

(Roll Down)

This is a great exercise that can be done anywhere! Start by standing away from the wall a few inches, facing away from the wall. Place your fingertips on the wall behind you and then the very back of your head. Continue rolling down the spine onto the wall— making sure to keep your head against the wall as the rest of your spine meets the wall. Bend your knees if you need to and move your feet forward farther away from the wall to accommodate the spine.

Then, from the very top of your head, peel your spine off the wall one vertebrae at a time. Stop before your lower back comes off. Let your arms hang heavy and loose. Do sloppy circles with your arms, 5 in each direction. Roll back up the wall, one vertebrae at a time.

The Wall - Arm Circles

Lift your arms forward, in line with your shoulders, keeping your rib cage connected to the wall. Circle the arms to the side, slightly in front of your shoulders, and down by your side. Focus on keeping your spine long against the wall. Repeat 3 times and then reverse.

The Wall - Skiing

With your legs in parallel, walk your feet farther forward (about 2ft) away from the wall. Bend your knees to a 90 degree angle, sitting into a squat against the wall. Keep your back flat against the wall as you lift your arms forward in line with your shoulders. Hold for 5-10sec. Press your arms down as your center pulls you back up the wall, straightening your legs.

Spider Up The Wall

Stand, facing the wall, about 6-9inches away from the wall. With your hands flat against the wall, at shoulder height, press your palms into the wall. Start tapping or rolling through the fingers, one at a time, tapping the wall like spider legs crawling. Keep your palms against the wall. Slowly, as the fingers are rolling, slide your palms up the wall. Focus on keeping the the tension out of your neck muscles. Then, spider the fingers back down the wall. Repeat 3 times.

Pre-Pilates Exercises for the Neck

Sitting on the edge of a chair(with good posture), lift your shoulders up and down three times. Then, roll them forward and back three times. Next, do three circles forward, up, back, and down. Then reverse the circles.

This is a great exercise to warm up the neck muscles.

After the shoulders, start tilting the head from one side to the other. Repeat 3 times. Then, try looking downward without collapsing the front of your neck. Next, do circles, looking to the right, down, left, and center. Repeat 3 times then go the other way.

Magic Circle Head/Neck Exercises

Standing, place one pad of the Magic Circle on your right temple(side of your forehead/cheekbone), your right hand will hold the circle by pressing into the other pad. Keeping your neck straight, press gently into the circle. Repeat 3 times, then do the other side. Focus on lengthening your spine.

Next, place the circle on your forehead, with your hands on the opposite side of the circle. Press the circle gently into your forehead, keeping your ears directly over your shoulders. Repeat 3 times.

Then, place the circle under your chin, with your hands at the bottom of the circle, fingers pointing towards each other and the elbows wide. Hold your arms tense. Think about lifting the base of your skull upwards. This will give a gentle press into the circle. Repeat 3 times.

By doing these exercises, we hope that you are able to create more length in your spine, giving relief to those poor vertebral discs that are constantly under gravity’s pressure. These exercises should naturally bring balance to your neck and back by strengthening and stretching in all the right places. After a regimen of 3-4x/week, let us know how you feel after three weeks! You should be well

on your way to a healthier spine!

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