Stability balls – also called exercise balls or Swiss balls – are a popular tool used by physical therapists to help alleviate low back pain. While some exercises have been developed specifically for use with the stability balls, they’re also used to add a new element to “tried and true” exercises like sit-ups or crunches.

The premise behind stability balls is that they enhance the beneficial effects of exercise by adding a dimension of instability which engages your core muscles more effectively and also causes those muscles to work harder. Your core muscles help stabilize your back to prevent low back pain, and stability balls help ensure these critical muscles get the workout they need to stay in shape.

But do they actually work? In fact, several studies have shown that using stability balls as part of a therapeutic approach to treating low back pain can be effective in reducing both back pain symptoms and functional disability symptoms like decreased flexibility and mobility. The key is to ensure the exercise balls are used appropriately to prevent overstraining muscles, and to avoid one of the most common problems associated with exercise ball use – falling off.

While exercise balls used to be found only in physical therapists offices, today they can be found in gyms and homes; in fact, there are hundreds of videos demonstrating the proper use of stability balls, both for sale and on YouTube.

Like any exercise, when performed inappropriately, stability ball exercises can wind up exacerbating your symptoms and even causing additional symptoms to develop. Before beginning a stability ball exercise program, it’s important to see your doctor to have your back pain evaluated to make sure using a stability ball won’t cause additional damage or make your pain become worse. And because there is a very real risk of falling off a stability ball and injuring yourself, it’s also probably a good idea to invest some time with a physical trainer or therapist to make sure you know the right way to use the equipment for maximum effect and safety.