Photo of a woman in the child's pose
Regular yoga keeps the back supple and helps manage chronic pain [Image: - Wikimedia Commons]

Yoga’s long-term benefits for chronic back pain

25 October, 2011

Natural Health News — In the largest study of yoga to date in the US, regular yoga classes were found to relieve symptoms of chronic low back pain and improve back-related function

The randomized controlled trial, published online ahead of its print publication in the Archives of Internal Medicine,also found that intensive stretching classes were equally as effective and that both types of exercise were more effective than advice from a self-care book

Back-related function was better and symptoms were diminished with yoga after 12 weeks; and there were other clinically important benefits, including less use of pain medications, which lasted at least six months for participants in both the yoga and stretching groups.

In the trial, 228 adults in six cities in western Washington state were randomly assigned to 12 weekly 75-minute classes of either yoga or stretching exercises or a comprehensive self-care book called The Back Pain Helpbook. Participants typically had moderate, though not severe – back pain and relatively good mental health. Most had been at least somewhat active before the trial started.

The class participants received instructional videos and were encouraged to practice at home for 20 minutes a day between their weekly classes.

Both the yoga and stretching classes emphasized the torso and legs:

  • The type of yoga used in the trial, called viniyoga, adapts the principles of yoga for each individual and physical condition, with modifications for people with physical limitations. The yoga classes also used breathing exercises, with a deep relaxation at the end.
  • The stretching classes used 15 different stretching exercises, including stretches of the hamstrings and hip flexors and rotators. Each was held for a minute and repeated once, for a total of 52 minutes of stretching. Strengthening exercises were also included.

“We expected back pain to ease more with yoga than with stretching, so our findings surprised us,” lead researcher Dr Karen J Sherman said. “The most straightforward interpretation of our findings would be that yoga’s benefits on back function and symptoms were largely physical, due to the stretching and strengthening of muscles.”

But the stretching classes included a lot more stretching than in most such classes, with each stretch held for a relatively long time, as would be the case in yoga.

“People may have actually begun to relax more in the stretching classes than they would in a typical exercise class,” she added. “In retrospect, we realized that these stretching classes were a bit more like yoga than a more typical exercise program would be.”

In other words the trial ended up comparing rather similar programs with each other.

The results suggest that both yoga and stretching can be good, safe options for people who are willing to try physical activity to relieve their moderate low back pain though Dr Sherman adds. “It’s important for the classes to be therapeutically oriented, geared for beginners, and taught by instructors who can modify postures for participants’ individual physical limitations.”