Low back pain is one of the most common reasons people visit the doctor – for obvious reasons. For some, the discomfort can be disabling, making it difficult to sleep or perform simple activities, like putting on shoes or picking up kids. It can also affect a career. In fact, low back pain is among the most frequent reasons for job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work.
Historically, chronic lower back pain, which lasts more than three months, has been very difficult to treat. Now, a growing body of research is providing evidence that the condition can be alleviated using yoga.
According to study findings published in the October issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, weekly yoga or deep stretching classes were effective in reducing pain and improving mobility – yielding better results than simply following an at-home care plan. In addition to experiencing fewer symptoms and less pain after following the exercise program, many people who attended the classes reported that they scaled back their medication usage.
“At the core of this study is the principle that individually-tailored exercise can be helpful. In many ways yoga has this built in, as it is done in a monitored setting where participants work to find positions that best address their needs,” says Robert Bonakdar, MD, director of pain management at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California. “Additionally, yoga provides variable levels of attention to breath and relaxation, which is critical. Research has shown that low back pain can be associated with dysfunctional breathing patterns and/or stress-related muscle tension.”
Participants in the study experienced persistent, moderate back pain that was not the result of a specific medical condition. They attended weekly 75-minute exercise classes over a 12-week period, and supplemented the classes with 20-minute practice sessions at home, aided by CDs, DVDs or handouts. The classes emphasized basic postures and exercises that strengthened and stretched the low back and leg muscles.
“Basic yoga postures enhance hip flexibility, core strength and active spine rotation, all of which can be beneficial to a person with chronic back pain,” says Kathleen Blechertas, a physical therapist at Scripps Health in San Diego, California. After completing physical therapy, she and her colleagues typically recommend at-home and community exercise programs to patients.
Before embarking on an exercise program, patients should talk to their doctor or therapist about whether it is appropriate. Blechertas also recommends patients choose a class that starts with gentle stretches, and listen to their body for signs of increased pain and soreness.
Dr. Bonakdar stresses the importance of finding a good instructor. “When provided by a qualified teacher with appropriate attention to the participants’ movement needs, breath and relaxation, yoga can provide significant benefit for the pain with minimal downside,” he says.
Regular stretching and strengthening of the back and leg muscles can alleviate chronic low back pain symptoms. However, you have to be persistent about following the exercise regimen. Here are a few tips to help you stay on track:
Find a class to attend on a regular basis.
Having something booked on your calendar increase the chances that you’ll go.
Find a partner to go with you.
Accountability is key. Find a friend to do the classes and exercises with you. Yoga and stretching are beneficial for most people.
Keep an exercise log.
Keep track of how often you attend class and practice at home, which exercises you do, and other details. A log will provide you an extra measure of accountability. You’ll also be able to see your progress, which is motivating.