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The One Thing That Finally Cured My Neck, Shoulder, and Upper-Back Pain

This exercise regimen could help heal chronic pain.

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Jewelry maker Marissa Alperin didn’t always suffer aches and pains. “For much of my life,” she says, aches and pains weren’t an issue.” Alperin has had a jewelry business for 18 years, and works up to three hours every day hunched over a table focused on tiny gems. As she approached 40, however, she started to experience back pain.

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“Whenever I moved from sitting to standing, the pain would come,” she says. “My entire back and neck would feel stiff, sore and tight. It was so uncomfortable.”

Daily Discomfort

Years of making jewelry while bent over her workbench had worsened her posture to the point that she could never fully straighten her back. Intense stiffness and tightness lingered in her upper back, neck and shoulders throughout the day. It subsided only when she stood fully upright. Each time she bent over to pick up groceries or care for her kids, the pain returned.

“The tightness in my neck also started giving me headaches, and I struggled to focus my eyes on the gems and tools of my craft, turning the work I’ve always loved into an unpleasant and painful experience,” she reports.

On especially uncomfortable days, Alperin took Advil, but she feared becoming dependent on it. She tried sitting on a lower stool and then on an exercise ball, but both hindered her ability to create jewelry. Ultimately, she went back to her original seat and workbench, telling herself that pain was a normal result of having kids and getting older. She resigned herself to living with daily discomfort.

Relief at Last

Alperin wasn’t a fan of Pilates. In fact, she wasn’t really certain what it was. “One day about five years ago, I was chatting with a friend about the worsening pain in my back and neck, and she told me about Carey Macaleer at Aline Pilates, a studio in our neighborhood that offers private sessions,” she says. Her friend was doing Pilates with Carey and suggested that she try it.

“At first, I balked at the idea — I had never owned sneakers, let alone exercised, and I didn’t see how Pilates could help me. But my friend was persistent — she had gotten tons of benefits from Pilates, and she wanted me to experience them too.” Eventually, Alperin scheduled a session.

She was nervous before meeting with Macaleer, worried that she wouldn’t be able to do the exercises. Initially, her body felt very stiff, and despite focusing on small movements, she was breathing hard during the first session. This only served to fuel her skepticism.

Alperin’s posture was so out of whack, she explained, that the positions Macaleer put her in left her feeling sore the next day. But unlike the tightness and stiffness she was used to, this soreness signaled a simultaneous loosening and strengthening of her muscles. She decided to schedule more sessions.

“Over time, Carey helped me open up my chest and shoulders and straighten my back and neck. She also encouraged me to stand up more throughout the day, so I started taking breaks from my work every 30 to 45 minutes instead of my usual every two to three hours,” she says.

Soon, Alperin was doing Pilates once or twice a week, either in a private session or a joint session with a friend. Gradually, she noticed that she wasn’t feeling as stiff when she got up from her work bench. After about six months, she says the pain was gone entirely.

“The improvement was eyeopening,” she laughs. “As my soreness disappeared, it showed me that what I was experiencing wasn’t a normal result of aging. And in fact, it was a problem that I could fix.”

Over time, her headaches and trouble focusing disappeared; the abdominal separation caused by her pregnancies healed; and she had a waistline for the first time in years.

“I still practice Pilates once or twice a week, and I’m still totally pain-free. My new reality even inspired me to purchase my first pair of sneakers — and those sneakers will carry me through my first half marathon this year.” Alperin reports having a “new lease on life.”

“I feel so fortunate to have found Pilates,” she says.

For a pilates sequence that can help you eliminate pain and tension in your neck, shoulders, and upper back right at home, watch this video from Pilates for the People. As always, consult with your physician before undertaking a new exercise protocol to address chronic pain.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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