A new study suggests that yoga may be more likely to improve back function, ease chronic back pain, and reduce the need for pain medication than conventional exercise or reading a self-care book.
The researchers say that exercise has previously been shown to relieve chronic low back pain, but this is the first study to suggest yoga may be superior to other forms of exercise. "Yoga may be beneficial for back pain because it involves physical movement, but it may also exert benefits through its effects on mental focus," they write. This focus could help patients "increase their awareness of how they had been moving and positioning their body in maladaptive ways, to relax tense muscles, and to relieve mental stress."
The study appears in the Dec. 20 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The study followed 101 adults with low back pain. Two-thirds had experienced back pain more than one year. Few of the participants reported work lost related to back pain or extensive activity restriction. However, more than 50% had taken medications weeks prior to the study's start.
One group attended three months of weekly 75-minute yoga or exercise classes and practiced at home. The exercise group went to weekly aerobics classes and strength training. A third group received a book about back pain.
After three months, all groups reported the same levels of pain, but patients in the yoga group were better able to use their backs in daily activities than patients in the other two groups.
However, after six months patients in the yoga group reported less pain and were far less likely to take medications for pain than their counterparts. At the final follow-up period (26 weeks), only 21% of yoga participants reported taking pain medication in the past week, compared with half of patients in the exercise group and 59% of those who received the book.
Rx for Viniyoga
The researchers note that patients in the study learned viniyoga, a therapeutic style that is easy to learn and can be adapted for various body types.
"This study suggests that viniyoga is a safe and effective treatment for chronic back pain and provides physicians with a rationale for recommending it (and possibly other therapeutically oriented styles of yoga as well) to their patients."
The authors add that doctors should encourage their patients to find yoga instructors who are knowledgeable about low back pain. They add that future studies should look at whether yoga might benefit other people such as those with more severe back pain.
The study was funded by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.