Back pain improves with yoga
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Back pain improves with yoga

If you’ve ever wondered if back pain improves with yoga, a study out of Boston might have your answer.

Researchers at Boston University found that 12 weeks of hiatha yoga had a significant improvement in low back pain compared to patients that continued traditional treatment for their low back pain. The study was recently published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. The research study followed a total of 30 patients that either participated in a 12-week hiatha yoga class and also were given instructions on home yoga exercises or a control group of patients that continued their currently prescribed treatment for their low back pain without adding the yoga intervention.

At the conclusion of the twelve-week study, the yoga group had an 80% reduction in their use of pain medication. Additionally,  73% of the yoga group felt that their back pain had subjectively improved. These findings were significant since only 27% in the control or “treatment as usual” group felt that their back pain had improved at the end of the 3-month study.

The researchers also found a decrease in the level of the pain reported by the yoga group with the reported change in low back pain reduced by roughly one-third from when they started the 12-week program.  Compare this group to the “no yoga” group which only reported about a 5% decrease in their low back pain after 12 weeks of seeing their doctor and taking various pain medications.

Commentary – I’m not surprised by the results of this study looking at possible benefits of yoga for patients with low back pain. Many patients with low back pain tend to have some type of low back or core muscle weakness or difficulty using these muscles properly.  A well-instructed yoga class that emphasizes core stability can go a long way in not only decreasing a patient’s low back pain but also cut down on their need for pain medications as well.

It would be interesting to see follow up studies done on these two groups over the following 6 to 12 months to see if the decrease in subjective complaints of low back pain in the yoga group continues as well as their decrease in use of pain medications. I’d also like to see the researchers try to establish the reason(s) behind the improvement and reduction in pain. Is it due to a relative strengthing of core muscles or the establishment of a regular exercise program?

Or is the reduction in pain due to a better mind-body connection from the regular yoga sessions? Lots of interesting follow up questions to answer with this research on low pain back and yoga.

I’d also be curious to see how these yoga sessions compare to other low back pain interventions such as one-on-one physical therapy sessions or the traditional home back exercise programs that physicians tend to give to patients.

How long do the patients need to continue their yoga exercise program would be another follow-up question to answer. Can these yoga for low back pain programs be done for a shorter time period, say four weeks, when a patient has a flare up of their low back pain, or do they need to restart the full 12 week program.

“Our pilot study showed that yoga is well-received in these communities and may be effective for reducing pain and pain medication use,” said Dr. Robert Saper in a news release. Dr. Saper, the lead author of the study, is also an assistant professor of family medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and director of integrative medicine at Boston Medical Center.

Finally, how scalable is this intervention?  Should physicians be prescribing yoga mats to their low back patients?

The study appears in the November issue of the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.

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