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Yoga Improves Function for People Who Suffer from Chronic Back Pain

The ancient practice of yoga can be beneficial for those suffering from chronic back pain, improving overall movement and function.


Ren Trippel, HealthNews, Nov 1, 2011

Yet another benefit of the ancient practice of Yoga has been revealed. A new British study found that yoga can improve back function for those who suffer from chronic back pain. The details of the analysis were recently published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Regarding the study findings, lead author Helen E. Tilbrook of the University of New York’s department of health sciences in Heslington, England stated, “Our results showed that yoga can provide both short and long-term benefits to those suffering from chronic or recurrent back pain, without any serious side effects.”

The results of the study support the findings of another recent study conducted by U.S. researchers from the University of Washington that found that chronic back pain could be relieved by participation in either yoga or stretching classes. Although the focus of this study was on pain relief rather than improvement of function, both studies discovered that individuals faired better by attending instructor-led classes, rather than taking on the task of following a self-help program.

According to the National Institutes of Health, back pain is one of the most common medical problems sending invidivuals to the doctor’s office, with 8 out of 10 people suffering from the condition at some point during their lives.

The severity of back pain can range from a dull but constant ache, to an abrupt, sharp pain. Sudden onset of back pain that lasts from a few days to a few weeks is known as acute back pain. However, the condition is considered chronic if the pain last for more than three months.

To find out if yoga could provide relief for those who suffer chronic back pain, the researchers followed 313 British back patients for the period between 2007 and 2010. The majority of study participants were middle-aged women. At the start of the study, participants had suffered from chronic back pain for an average of 10 years.

While all of the study subjects continued standard care for their back pain, including such therapies as medication, massage, and chiropractic treatment, in addition to having received a education booklet on back pain, 156 were enrolled an instructor-led, 12-session yoga class that would continue over the course of three months.

Classes were provided by 20 different instructors having special training for the use of yoga to treat back pain, and took place weekly for 75 minutes. The classes were designed for beginners, and participants were given home practice sheets for use between weekly sessions. The courses included relaxation and mental focus techniques associated with the “asana” and “pranayama” forms of yoga.

Torgerson pointed out, “These classes were more gentle than a typical yoga class, because the yoga teachers didn't want to exacerbate any back pain. They put together a series of yoga poses that would increase, if patients could manage it, the ability to move.”

Findings of the analysis revealed that better back function was experienced by those in the study who participated in the yoga classes, than among those who were not enrolled in the program. The results were based on answers to a series of disability and pain questionnaires given to all study participants at the end of the yoga program, and then again three months, six months, and one year following completion of the yoga program.

Among yoga participants, the greatest benefit for improved back function was seen immediately following the completion of the yoga course, with participants who had taken the classes reporting the ability to perform 30 percent more activities compared to non-class participants.

Torgerson said, “This is an intervention that people can do at home once they’ve been trained to do it,” noting that this is one benefit yoga provides over other types of treatment requiring visits to the doctor for each flare up.

The research team concluded that participation in yoga classes provided the best chance for improvement of back function when compared to conventional medicine’s standard of chronic back pain treatment. However, it must be noted that while yoga participants articulated have a greater confidence than those in the non-yoga group in regards to their ability to perform normal activities up to three months after completing the yoga classes, the level of pain suffered by participants was no better among those in the yoga group than it was for those in the non-yoga group.

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