New Studies Show that Yoga Helps Relieve Chronic Low Back Pain

By: 
Jessica Smith Soto

Chronic back pain affects millions of Americans; it is not only a painful condition, it also limits many areas of daily life and mobility.

Low back pain sufferers may soon find a new source of relief: yoga. A 2011 study on ‘Yoga for Chronic Low Back Pain’ published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that yoga provides not just more effective low back pain than usual care, but also provides it faster. The study used 313 adults with recurrent low back pain, and half of the group underwent a 12 week yoga program while the other half used usual low back pain care for 12 months.

According to the authors of the study, “The benefits of yoga may be greater than those of exercise alone because yoga offers a combination of physical exercise with mental focus, and patients are taught good posture, self-awareness, and self-care along with relaxation.” The 12 week yoga programs created improvements not only in back pain, but also in back function. The poses in class focused on improving mobility, strength, posture and reducing pain through poses that targeted stiff and weak areas of the body. Class would gradually built on strength to increase confidence in performing daily activities. This study indicates that yoga for back pain is helpful on several different levels and quicker than usual care.

Another recent study looked at the effects of yoga in a population of veterans, who are particularly susceptible to low back pain. The San Diego Health Services Research and Development conducted a specialized study in 2008 on the effects of yoga in veterans suffering from chronic low back pain. Significant improvements were found in levels of pain, depression, and energy and fatigue. Generally speaking, the more yoga classes the veterans attended, the greater the improvements.

The two studies lend further support to the results of the ground-breaking study published in Annals of Internal Medicine in 2005, which was one of the first to show the effects of yoga in adults with chronic low back pain. In order to isolate the effects of yoga, only volunteers with no previous yoga practice, who had not received other back pain treatment participated in the study. Volunteers with more complicated back pain issues such as previous back surgery or spinal stenosis and those who potentially could attribute back pain to different conditions such as pregnancy or dislocated joints were excluded from the study.

Finally, a study published in the Spine Journal by West Virginia University sought to evaluate the effectiveness of Iyengar yoga , a yoga style that places great emphasis on alignment, on chronic low back pain. Over the course of 24 weeks, half of the volunteers attended Iyengar yoga class designed for chronic low back pain twice a week, the other participants underwent standard medical care. Before the completion of 24 weeks, the yoga group already experienced strong reductions in functional disability, pain intensity, and depression. In the six months of follow-up after the completion of the classes, researchers found that the yoga participants still recorded less pain, significantly lower depression and a notable reduction in pain medication. A similar study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on the effects of Inyengar yoga for chronic back pain sufferers found the same outcomes with participants reporting improvements after only 12 weeks of Iyengar yoga classes.

While yoga indicates relief for back pain, it is important to note that physicians were involved in each study to monitor the safety of engaging in the yoga practice. Always seek medical advice before beginning yoga as a treatment for any physical aliment, and make sure to find a yoga instructor with experience working with low back pain. 

For more information on studies:
Yoga for Chronic Low Back Pain
Yoga for Veterans with Chronic Low Back Pain
Comparing Yoga, Exercise, and a Self-Care Book for Chronic Low Back Pain
Evaluation of the effectiveness and efficacy of Iyengar yoga therapy on chronic low back pain