Pilates After Back Surgery


As a student about to sit exams in my final semester of university in 2007, I found myself in a serious physical predicament – debilitating sciatic pain. If you have experienced sciatica then you know exactly what kind of searing pain I’m talking about. The sensation is commonly described as “walking on eggshells” because even the slightest movement in the wrong direction sets off symptoms such as tingling, weakness, numbness, burning and intense pain coursing the entire way down your leg to your foot. Depending on the severity, pain medication and localised treatment provides limited relief. Even walking short distances sent excruciating pain racing down the back of my right leg. I had to frequently sit down and place pressure on the affected area at regular intervals, and dragged my right leg behind me across the campus….not a great look.

An MRI scan and X-ray confirmed the culprit was a herniated disc pressing into one of the nerves in my lower back near my tailbone, and this was causing my severe leg pain symptoms. 

The surgeon explained that a herniated disc can occur when the gel-like substance in the middle of the spinal disc bulges and ruptures outwards which can then irritate, nudge or compress nearby sensitive nerves. These nerves travel from the spine all the way down to the feet, hence why I was getting pain here. In my case the surgeon pointed out that a combination of high impact sports and not sticking to the rehab exercises prescribed to me following surgery for an inguinal hernia the year before were undoubtedly key contributors. 

Although spinal surgery is normally a last resort for a herniated disc, other attempts to alleviate the pain had become progressively less effective. The severity of the condition required immediate action and I was to undergo a ‘microdiscectomy’. The operation was successful and the pain abated, however a new challenge emerged in the form of re-strengthening the muscles that had become weakened and managing the neural symptoms that hadn’t completely resolved.

During my recovery, I was encouraged to not only follow through with my rehab exercises but to also try Clinical Pilates. I have now been doing equipment-based Pilates sessions for ten years and have found the personalised program set out for me each week invaluable. 

I have not suffered any back pain since the surgery and rehab (touch wood…), and Pilates has helped to strengthen the muscles of my right leg (including my glutes, hamstrings and calves) that became weak due to my injury. My leg strength and muscle stamina have also significantly improved when running and swimming. I feel that Pilates has increased the flexibility in my hips, legs and back, and helps to manage the night cramps & muscle spasms I can occasionally get in my right calf due to some neural damage from my injury. I now run the 14km City2Surf course each year, play tennis and go to the gym regularly – all activities that were lost to me after my back injury.

As referred to in the Fix + Flex blog article “The Core, Back Pain & Pilates”, strengthening the core muscles is one of the key factors in managing back pain and in avoiding back injuries or chronic conditions. Learning to “turn on” my core muscles while doing exercises on the traditional Pilates equipment, as well as doing challenging balance exercises on the SurfSet® and CoreAlign® has been ideal for this.

Even if you are just managing a “niggly” back or struggle to release tight muscles or soreness in your hips or glutes, these can be warning signs that can quickly become pre-cursors to more serious issues such as the disc problem I suffered from. If you have been lucky enough to avoid sciatic pain or a back injury, I can personally recommend proactively taking preventative measures focused primarily on building your core strength with Pilates exercises.