Triumph over pain: how Pilates fixed what others couldn’t

Dubai's Pilates Academy has been Samar Al Sayed's saving grace, offering her relief from the severe neck pain that was slowly becoming more and more unbearable. 

The Pilates Academy also offers a trampoline-based cardio routine. Reem Mohammed / The National
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I was living with a pressure cooker inside my neck for at least two years. Not the cervical spine itself, but the muscles on either side. It was so painful that it was akin to someone constantly tugging at my hair and trying to pin me to the ground. I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t sleep.

I eventually found myself addicted to swimming since it seemed the only way to alleviate this pressure. On most days, it was my magic pill. Eventually, given the sheer number of hours I would spend doing laps – six or more on any given week – my shoulders became inflamed and severely impinged, with a tear in my left shoulder. That, of course, caused me to stop swimming, which exacerbated my neck pain and which only supplemented my shoulder pain. I desperately wanted someone to take the bricks off my shoulders and had no idea how that would ever happen.

Read more: Shrugging it off: how pilates can help rid of neck and back pain

I went from doctor to doctor and from physiotherapist to physiotherapist. No one linked the shoulder pain to the neck pain. Most would concur that I had generalised fibromyalgia (musculoskeletal pain) and that I needed, quite simply, to calm down. I started to believe them, since a single disturbing or stressful thought would send my trapezius muscles (a triangular-shaped muscle extending from the neck, down the spine and across the shoulder) shrivelling up and tugging at my neck. Holding poses in yoga that involved lifting my arms would mean being crippled by a rock-hard trapezius for days afterwards.

No amount of stretching, hot packs or anti-inflammatories could do anything for me and I started to doubt how I could ever hold down an office job since sitting in front of a computer was sheer misery.

That was until I met an orthopaedic surgeon who was intrigued by the big picture. He had me take off my jacket and looked at my side profile. “Your shoulders are tilted forward. Your neck pain is from your posture. I’m referring you to a Pilates trainer.”

He said it so matter of factly, but with such conviction that I had no choice but to follow his instructions.

With a simple tennis ball under my shoulder blades once a week, my neck pain is – for now, at least – a thing of the past. Even when my shoulders hurt mechanically, my neck is no longer impacted. The key was developing other muscle groups in the back and deactivating the overworked muscles at the tops of the shoulders, which were wearing the brunt of the entire postural misalignment.

My Pilates teacher has me laying down on a foam roller and mobilises my shoulders with therapy balls. We use resistance bands to strengthen the latissimus dorsi (back muscles near the armpit) and a tennis ball to open the clavicle (collarbone).

After so much suffering and even more reading, I can say with some confidence that the key to my neck woes is posture and I hope more practitioners will look at the big picture when approached by patients suffering from this 21st-century ailment.