Yoga: An Effective Treatment for Back Pain?

Exercise is viewed as a great long term, complimentary option for pain relief. However, finding a program you can stick with, while being effective and safe, is a challenge. Yoga has gained an enthusiastic following for all sorts of health benefits including managing back pain. The question was whether scientific evidence supports yoga as an effective form of treatment.

The current practice of yoga focusing on physical exercise derives from a form of Hatha yoga, which dates back to the 15th century. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that this form of yoga began to take shape on a widespread scale in the western world. The mantra of Hatha yoga is to use physical force to distract one’s mind from external objects. “Yoga can help with many different back problems, because unlike other forms of treatment, yoga can simultaneously address the physical, emotional and psychological aspects” says Amy Noto, a Shanghai based yoga teacher. This is achieved through the application of asanas (physical poses) and pranayama (breathing techniques).

The first research to link medical benefits to yoga was published by Dr. Dean Ornish in 1980. He reported that yoga, as part of a lifestyle-driven treatment program, can be effective to reduce the risk of heart disease. Following this, the application of physically-driven yoga became widespread, from asthma to cancer, AIDS and many other forms of disease. In the management of back pain, the first reports of success came with small group studies published in 2004. However, it wasn’t until recent years that large scale studies have added significant scientific foundation to the utility of yoga in managing pain.

In 2011, research out of the University of York was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine comparing yoga to standard medical care in managing chronic low back pain. 313 patients were enrolled in the program, making it the largest research project to evaluate the effect of yoga in relieving back pain to date. Participants in the program attended weekly, 75 minute sessions over 3 months, with specific poses geared toward managing back pain. Not only did the majority of participants prefer yoga to standard care, but the yoga group demonstrated better function in their daily activity levels. A follow-up study was published in 2012 in Spine, demonstrating the cost-effectiveness and utility of yoga in managing back pain. The yoga group imparted less cost on the medical system and resulted in fewer days missed from work.

There are several reasons yoga offers significant health benefits in managing low back pain. Many people who suffer from low back pain deal with depression and high stress levels. The self-meditation and breathing techniques utilized in yoga helps reduce these symptoms, which in turn improves the psychologic component of pain (referred to as “positive psychology”). At the same time, the concentration required during yoga directs the focus away from pain, thereby reducing pain levels. Physically, yoga offers the same benefits as aerobic exercise: improving sleep, energy, mood, and increasing your body’s natural release of pain-relieving chemicals.

However, don’t just join a class at a studio tomorrow and expect your pain to improve. Noto adds, “People are often too ambitious in group classes, attempting to do full versions of a pose before their bodies are ready. If you are coming to yoga for therapeutic reasons, make sure to take things slowly, and consider starting privately with an experienced instructor to learn what is appropriate for your level.”

When managing chronic or severe pain, yoga is just part of the solution. A well-rounded program that may include yoga, medication, procedures, running, osteopathic treatment, and in some cases psychologic therapy, has been shown to produce the best results. As always, if you struggle with low back pain, seek advice from a physician specializing in pain management before starting any new workout. This way, a treatment program can be developed for your specific problem.

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