Yoga may soothe chronic back pain

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) — People plagued by chronic lower backaches may find some relief in yoga class, researchers reported Monday.

Their study of 101 adults with persistent low back pain found that a gentle yoga class seemed to be a better alternative to either general exercise or a self-help book. Though people in the exercise class eventually improved to a similar degree as their yoga-practicing counterparts, yoga class brought quicker results.

It's possible that yoga's benefits for both the body and mind explain the effects on lower back pain, the study's lead author, Dr. Karen J. Sherman, told Reuters Health.

She stressed, though, that the study participants took a slower-moving form of yoga that was designed for people with lower back problems. Vigorous styles of yoga that include more-advanced poses could potentially make chronic back pain worse.

Sherman, a researcher at the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, and her colleagues report the findings in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week.

It's estimated that 14 million Americans practice yoga, often as a way to treat chronic aches and pains. But, in the Western medical literature at least, there have been no published studies on the effects of yoga on chronic back pain, Sherman said.

To look at the question, she and her colleagues randomly assigned 101 adults to take either 12 weeks of yoga class or 12 weeks of a standard therapeutic exercise class, or to follow the advice of a self-care book.

The yoga class was conducted in what's known as the viniyoga style, which goes by the philosophy that poses should be adapted to the individual's needs. The instructor was experienced in therapeutic yoga, and the class was limited to basic poses that would not put too much strain on the back, Sherman explained.

After 12 weeks, the yoga practitioners reported better back function than their peers in either of the other two groups. After another three months, those in the exercise group had improved to a similar degree as the yogis.

The findings don't clearly show whether yoga or standard, therapy-focused exercise is better for low back pain, Sherman said. But, she added, given the choice, "I'd pick yoga."

She pointed to one difference between the yoga practitioners and other two groups that remained over the long haul: At the last evaluation, the yogis were using less than half the amount of pain medication their peers were.

Why this is, and why yoga showed a quicker benefit for low back pain, is an open question. But Sherman speculated that yoga's "mind and body effects" are at work.

Viniyoga, like other forms of yoga, focuses on coordinating movement with the breath and focusing the mind. It's possible, according to Sherman, that yoga allowed the back pain sufferers to become more aware of their habitual movements and postures that may have been contributing to their back problems in the first place.

Certain back problems, like spinal disc injuries, might not respond well to yoga, Sherman noted. But most people, she added, have "non-specific" back pain involving muscles, soft tissue and nerves, and for them, therapeutic yoga could be worth a try.

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