Yoga can help reduce back pain, but there is no way to predict how useful it will be in an individual case. The latest research on this subject reviewed 12 earlier randomized controlled trials. Each of these investigations looked at yoga’s effect on back pain compared with no exercise or other types of exercise. The 12 studies involved data on 1,080 participants in the U.S., the UK, and India. All had chronic non-specific lower back pain that had lasted at least three months and did not stem from a particular cause such as an injury or disease.
Most of the participants (mean age of 42 to 48) took one to three yoga classes each week lasting 45 to 90 minutes. The most common form of yoga taught was Iyengar (a type of Hatha yoga that uses props and focuses on body alignment) or a variation of it. All of the classes included meditation, relaxation training or breathing exercises in addition to yoga poses. In all the studies, the yoga routines were developed specifically for people with back pain and taught by experienced professionals.
All told, the investigators concluded that yoga was moderately more helpful than no exercise at all, with effects lasting up to six months, but less effective when compared to other types of exercise. In addition, about five percent of patients reported that their back pain was worse, not better, as a result of yoga compared to people who did not exercise. Investigation leader, Susan Wieland, Ph.D., said that more high quality research is needed to determine whether or not yoga can reliably provide lasting relief to people with back pain.
Despite the results of this analysis, I believe therapeutic yoga can be helpful for back pain. The stretches can reduce muscle tension, strengthen the muscles of the back and promote flexibility. To find a therapeutic yoga instructor in your area check out the website of the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
I also suggest reading one or both books on back pain by Dr. John Sarno, a physician and professor of rehabilitation medicine at New York University. Dr. Sarno believes most back pain results from tension myositis syndrome (TMS); “myositis” means muscle inflammation. Sarno defines TMS as a vicious cycle of muscle spasm and inflammation stemming from an unbalanced pattern of nerve signals that interferes with blood supply. He states that the root cause of the syndrome is in the mind and that mind/body approaches are the best correctives. His books are Healing Back Pain: the Mind-Body Connection (Grand Central Publishing, 2001) and Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain (Grand Central Publishing 2001).
I’m convinced that Dr. Sarno is right and that treatment for most patients should be aimed at changing habits of thinking, feeling and handling stress that cause the pain.
Find more of my recommendations for dealing with back pain.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
L. Susan Wieland et al, “Yoga treatment for chronic non-specific low back pain.” Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews, January 12, 2017, DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CDO10671.pub2c