Yoga for Back Pain

Bridge pose, cobra, downward-facing dog: can doing different yoga positions ease mild or even chronic back pain? Are there additional benefits that this Indian practice, developed over five millennia, can bring to the body and mind?

Lower back pain in adults can manifest as a dull ache that builds in intensity over many years, which can be one result of how the aging process affects the spine. Or, pain can appear abruptly and sharply, leaving an otherwise mobile person incapacitated. 

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recent studies in people with mild to moderate chronic lower back pain suggest that a carefully-adapted set of yoga postures may help reduce pain and improve the ability to walk and move.

There are different types of yoga, from ancient Ashtanga to modern Bikram, but all connect specific movements of the body with breathing techniques. Some types incorporate meditation, too.

Can Yoga Really Help Your Back?

To study whether yoga effectively treats back pain, in 2017, a team at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center studied 320 predominantly low-income, racially-diverse adults with moderate to severe chronic lower back pain. When the study began, about 70 percent of participants were taking some form of pain medication.

Participants were randomly divided into three groups. One group received weekly yoga classes over the course of 12 weeks that were designed specifically for people with chronic lower back pain. Another group received 15 standard physical therapy visits over the course of 12 weeks. The last group was given educational material to read about self-care for chronic lower back pain, but was offered no physical treatment.

After tracking participants for an additional 40-week maintenance phase, researchers randomly assigned people in the first two groups to either continue to practice yoga or to do physical therapy at home or with a professional.

While all three groups reported improvements in physical function and pain reduction, people in the yoga and physical therapy groups were significantly more likely than those in the education-only group to stop taking pain relievers after one year.

These findings suggest that a regular yoga program may be a reasonable alternative to physical therapy for people with chronic lower back pain, according to the NIH.

Still, the study’s authors don’t recommend people with chronic lower back pain take any random yoga class, at least as a beginner.

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