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Can Pilates Exercises be Used to Ease Degenerative Disc Disease Pain?

Published June 14, 2018
| Written By SpineNation Editorial Staff  
Tags:  Pilates

By using the strength-building exercises within Pilates, you can help alleviate pain and suffering caused by degenerative disc disease.

Degenerative disc disease is a natural occurrence that happens with aging in the spine no matter one’s strength or lumbar mobility. Symptoms range from chronic back pain to sciatic pain in the lower body. It typically develops later in life due to spinal wear over time. Since the lower back is flexible and supports body weight, this condition usually occurs in the lumbar spine.

The Degeneration Process

In a healthy back, the disc interlocking the bones in the spine are made of soft and compressible tissue to absorb the effects of flexing and bending. As the back ages, the fluid in the spinal discs decrease. The lower fluid reduces the ability to absorb shock. Discs become thinner while the space between the vertebrae becomes smaller causing inflexibility in the spine. Once degeneration begins, it cannot be reversed. The damaged discs receive minimal nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood limiting any ability to heal.

It is not uncommon to have bone spurs, along with wear and tear of the vertebrae, happening at the same time as degenerative disc disease.

What is Pilates?

Designed by Joseph Pilates, a German immigrant who taught his method to the New York City Ballet in the early 1960s, the Pilates mind-body system addresses human movement in measurable parts including strength, range of motion, endurance, awareness, balance, control, efficiency, function, and harmony. In combining those elements, stabilization and posture is refined. Movement mechanics improve while muscle recruitment patterns and function are re-educated.

How does Pilates Benefit People with Degenerative Disc Disease?

Pilates builds strength by training the entire body including areas that support the spine—core muscles, the back, abdomen, and pelvic floor are all strengthened. It promotes full-body and mind fitness making for an integrative fitness routine. Posture is also improved as well as energy. All of which collectively helps to relieve pain associated with degenerative disc disease.

Pilates strengthens the abdomen and the back extensors to increase core stability. This stretches and strengthens the hip flexors and hamstrings, relieving back tightness. The systematic stretching and strengthening is also important to other muscles including back muscles.

Moves such as the pelvic curl, supine twist, chest lift and leg changes are good for spinal alignment, lumbar spine control and lengthening the latissimus dorsi muscle. The broadest and most powerful back muscle, it is also one of the widest muscles in the human body.


Because everyone is different, it is important that you talk with your physician or physical therapist prior to starting Pilates. They may tell you specific exercises you should avoid during this treatment. If in a class setting, let the instructor know your condition and the advice you received from your medical professional.

Real Patients Real Stories

Several examples of those who used Pilates as a degenerative disc disease treatment include a 64-year-old man who, in the early 1980s, injured his back while volunteering as a firefighter. He had surgery following the injury, but problems continued. An MRI showed his degenerative disc disease six years ago. He simply did not feel comfortable moving around. He has trouble bending over to pick something up off the floor. An avid boater, he wanted to feel comfortable walking on floating docks again.

He tried physical therapy, gym programs, chiropractors and several more surgeries to no relief.

His Pilates instructor started him out lightly. At first, he experienced pain, but once his strength was developed, relief soon followed. His instructor credits deep body awareness and the stabilizing work offered with Pilates.

While his back pain decreased, his balanced increased.

Another patient, a 50-year-old woman, was physically active most of her life. A traumatic boat injury resulted in pain all down her right leg. Her primary care physician told her the pain would end by itself. After taking strong pain medication for several months, the sciatica pain reduced but she had trouble moving her back. An X-ray and MRI revealed she had scoliosis and lumbar spondylosis with multi-level degenerative disc disease combined with a superimposed disc bulge.

Unable to work, she experienced depression. Instead of surgery, she went with a non-surgical approach having decompression done along with rest, stretching, massages, acupuncture, and walking.

Her Pilates instructor designed a program to strengthen her abdominal muscles which are vital to the spine’s health and her back to increase core stability. The treatment helped stretch and strengthen her hip flexors and hamstrings thus helping to relieve her low back tightness.

So, if you are experiencing degenerative disc disease consider Pilates. As with any new exercise program, talk with your physician first.

Updated: November 10, 2019

Information provided within this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Those seeking specific medical advice should consult his or her doctor or surgeon. If you need to consult with a specialist, you may be able find a health care provider in our Specialist Finder. SpineNation does not endorse treatments, procedures, products or physicians.

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  • Technically, degenerative disc disease isn’t a single discrete illness — it’s a term which describes symptoms arising from the natural degeneration of spinal discs with age. Wondering whether degenerative disc disease could be responsible for your back pain, loss of flexibility, or other spinal issues? Look no further.