Yoga long ago made the transition from fringe to mainstream, and classes are now being taught everywhere from dedicated yoga studios to your local gym. That’s because it is an excellent way to build strength and flexibility.
Now researchers are confirming what yoga practitioners have long suspected: that yoga can provide relief for some low back pain sufferers. Within the past few years, findings from well-designed studies have begun to provide evidence of how yoga can help people with low back pain.
In a 2011 systematic review of the studies published in Clinical Rheumatology, researchers identified seven high-quality clinical trials that compared yoga with standard care, education or conventional therapeutic exercises for low back pain. Five of the studies found an advantage for yoga, while the other two found no difference. The conclusion? Yoga has the potential to alleviate low back pain, although the evidence is not yet definitive.
Researchers have yet to pinpoint precisely how yoga may help to relieve low back pain, but observations that yoga increases muscle strength and flexibility, reduces muscle tension, decreases fear and avoidance of movement and reduces psychological stress might serve as the most obvious possible explanations.
Although the study results are encouraging, yoga isn’t the answer for everyone with chronic low back pain. The studies included in the review looked at the effect of yoga only in people with back pain caused by minor issues such as muscle strains and sprains. If a more serious condition—such as a herniated disc, spinal stenosis or a vertebral compression fracture—is responsible for back pain, certain yoga positions might actually be harmful. In such cases, it would be best to avoid yoga altogether.
To be safe, check with your doctor before you begin a yoga program or any other exercise regimen. He or she can also advise you on what level of physical activity is safe and what yoga postures you might need to modify or avoid.
If your doctor gives you the green light, make sure you know exactly what type of yoga is being taught before you sign up. Some schools of yoga like Kundalini, Ashtanga and Bikram (“hot”) yoga are fairly specialized and may be too physically taxing for beginners. The Annals of Internal Medicine study evaluated Viniyoga, while the Spine study used Iyengar yoga. Both of these varieties are appropriate for newcomers and those with physical limitations such as back pain.
Regardless of the type of yoga you choose, it’s important to find a qualified instructor who is experienced in teaching people with low back pain. Your doctor or physical therapist may be able to recommend a teacher. Or try checking with organizations that offer reputable yoga teacher training programs, such as the American Viniyoga Institute, the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States or B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga.
A final word of caution: Yoga’s fast-growing popularity has yielded an equally rapid rise in the number of yoga-related injuries. To avoid these, work within your physical limitations and modify or skip any poses that are difficult or painful.