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.
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. They developed a yoga for back pain guidebook with special warm-up postures, followed by a routine “flow” designed to engage, stretch, and strengthen lower back muscles. Cool-down postures are suggested, too.
The guide is designed for beginning, intermediate, and more advanced yoga practitioners, offering different, and increasingly more difficult segments to try in sequential order as strength, stamina, and ability improves.
Easing or even eliminating back pain is not the only potential benefit of yoga. The NIH also reports the practice has been shown to improve a person’s general sense of well-being, relieve neck pain, help control blood sugar levels, alleviate anxiety and depression, improve sleep, help with weight loss, and even aid smoking cessation.