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Yoga for Back Pain

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Updated July 15, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

If you suffer from back pain, yoga may provide relief and help restore functioning. A mind-body practice that combines poses, deep breathing, and meditation, yoga may even improve quality of life and reduce the need for pain medication among individuals with back pain.

Learn about other mind-body practices shown to relieve chronic pain.

How Does Yoga Relieve Back Pain?

Since chronic back pain is complex and notoriously difficult to treat, many people turn to alternative and complementary therapies to manage their pain. Although it's still unclear how yoga might relieve back pain, some research suggests that its potential to improve flexibility, promote relaxation, build strength, and ease stress may contribute to reduced pain and improved functioning.

Benefits of Yoga for Back Pain

In a study published in 2009, researchers found that six months of regular yoga practice was associated with significant improvements among people with chronic back pain. The study involved a total of 90 participants with chronic back pain: About half took part in twice-weekly, 90-minute yoga classes, while the other half continued with their usual medical care. Members of the yoga-practicing group were also given DVDs, yoga props, and an instruction manual, and told to practice at home on non-class days.

By the end of the treatment period, the yoga group reported an average 42 percent reduction in pain, 29 percent decrease in functional disability, and 46 percent drop in symptoms of depression. In addition, those in yoga group also had a lower medication use (compared to study members who didn't practice yoga). What's more, among the 68 percent of yoga-group members who kept up their yoga practice even after the treatment period ended, researchers observed a sustained improvement in pain, functional disability, and depression.

Several other recently published studies have yielded similar findings on yoga's effects on pain intensity, functional disability, and medication use among people with chronic back pain.

Is Yoga Safe for People with Back Pain?

Although yoga is generally considered safe, people with chronic back pain (or any other medical condition) should consult with their doctor before starting a yoga practice. Furthermore, some inverted yoga poses may be risky for individuals with certain health problems (such as high blood pressure and osteoporosis).

It's important to note that yoga should not be used as a replacement for standard care in treatment of back pain.

Sources:

Groessl EJ, Weingart KR, Aschbacher K, Pada L, Baxi S. "Yoga for veterans with chronic low-back pain." J Altern Complement Med. 2008 14(9):1123-9.

Harvard Health Publications. "Lower back pain? Yoga therapy can help".

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Yoga for Health: An Introduction". NCCAM Publication No. D412. May 2008.

Saper RB, Sherman KJ, Cullum-Dugan D, Davis RB, Phillips RS, Culpepper L. "Yoga for chronic low back pain in a predominantly minority population: a pilot randomized controlled trial." Altern Ther Health Med. 2009 15(6):18-27.

Sorosky S, Stilp S, Akuthota V. "Yoga and pilates in the management of low back pain." Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2008 1(1):39-47.

Williams K, Abildso C, Steinberg L, Doyle E, Epstein B, Smith D, Hobbs G, Gross R, Kelley G, Cooper L. "Evaluation of the effectiveness and efficacy of Iyengar yoga therapy on chronic low back pain." Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2009 1;34(19):2066-76.

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