Yoga for Low Back Pain

In the first of a series on back pain, Baxter Bell dives more deeply into a recent study that explored yoga for chronic low-back pain.

Because low-back pain is such a big topic and affects so many people, I’m going to talk a little more about a study I reported on in my last post. That study was a follow up to an investigation done in 2005 that showed yoga’s usefulness for sufferers of low-back pain.

Some 70-80 percent of adults in the US will have at least one bout of low-back pain at some point, and 10 percent of those will develop chronic back pain. Even though 85 percent of the time no specific cause can be identified, there are more than 100 kinds of treatments marketed for low-back pain, and very few have undergone rigorous scientific study to see if they really help. Low-back pain is the number #1 reason for Americans to seek out alternative treatments.

There are different kinds of back pain (acute, subacute, and chronic), and this study worked with sufferers of chronic moderate low-back pain. The study compared the effectiveness of yoga for this group to a stretching program or self-care. Viniyoga, a style of yoga named by American yoga teacher Gary Kraftsow for the yoga taught to him by his teacher T. Krishnamacharya, was the style chosen. (If you are unfamiliar with this style, I would recommend reading “The Heart of Yoga” by TKV Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, or “Yoga for Wellness” by Gary Kraftsow, to learn more.)

People in the yoga group attended 75-minute weekly classes for 12 weeks. Each class included asana, pranayama, and Savasana, and two classes each focused on six areas: relaxation, developing strength and flexibility, asymmetric poses, strengthening hips, lateral bending, and integration and assimilation. Participants, who ranged in age from 20-65, also received a 20-minute yoga CD that they were asked to practice with several times a week at home.

By the end of the study, the students who did yoga noted significant improvement in pain and function, though they had more improvement in function. This is consistent with findings in other studies on low-back pain. In addition, two-thirds of the yoga group were still practicing 3 months after the classes ended. Researchers determined that it was the sequence of poses, rather than one specific pose, that seemed to improve function.

The group in the stretching wing of the study showed similar improvement. The obvious implication is that there is more than one way to positively influence back pain. This is a good thing, as yoga may not resonate with everyone.

For us as yogis, this study may confirm our personal experience. For non-yogis, I hope that these sorts of studies and the common-sense advice they offer will spur more people to consider yoga as a part of their approach to healing.

In my next post on back care, we’ll look at some specific yoga approaches to relieving back pain. So, stay tuned!