New research suggests yoga may be just as good for relieving chronic back pain as physical therapy.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), approximately 80 percent of the American adult population will have low back pain at one point or another, with men and women being equally affected.
For most of these people, the pain is acute and does not last very long. For others, however, it turns into chronic back pain - meaning that it lasts for at least 12 weeks, even when the cause of the pain has been dealt with.
Treatment options for low back pain include muscle strengthening exercises, physical therapy sessions, and analgesic medication. When these therapies fail, surgery is also an option.
Unfortunately, none of the above therapies have proven highly successful. Between 25 and 80 percent of people who were treated for chronic low back pain experience a recurrence within a year from the treatment.
For this reason, people living with chronic pain often resort to alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or yoga. The NIH report that there is enough evidence to support the "short- and long-term benefits" of yoga for relieving chronic low back pain.
Previous studies have indeed suggested that yoga and stretching help ease low back pain.
But chronic low back pain tends to affect racial and ethnic minorities in particular, as well as people with a lower socioeconomic background. In this population - as well as in those who have more severe pain - the benefits of yoga may not have been studied sufficiently.
So, researchers from the Boston Medical Center set out to examine the effect of yoga sessions on a group of 320 adults with chronic low back pain. The participants were of various races and ethnicities; overall, they also had an income equal to or lower than $30,000 per year.
The findings were published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. The first author of the study is Dr. Robert B. Saper.
Yoga a 'reasonable alternative'
The 320 participants were randomly assigned to either attending 12 weekly yoga sessions, 15 physical therapy sessions, or just reading an educational book and newsletters on how to manage chronic low back pain.
After these interventions, the researchers continued to follow the participants for 1 year, which included a 40-week maintenance phase.
During the maintenance phase, yoga participants either took yoga drop-in classes or practiced yoga at home. Physical therapy participants took part in physical therapy booster sessions or practiced physical therapy at home.
To assess the participants' functionality, Saper and colleagues used the Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire. To assess pain levels, they used an 11-point scale at 12 weeks.
The trial determined that yoga was "statistically as effective" as physical therapy for alleviating pain, helping patients to be more functional, and to reduce their pain medication.
These improvements continued to be the same for both yoga and physical therapy after 1 year. As a result, the authors conclude that yoga is a "reasonable alternative" to physical therapy. They write:
"In conclusion, we found that yoga was noninferior to [physical therapy] for improving moderate to severe nonspecific [chronic low back pain] in a diverse, predominantly low-income population."
Depending on the cost of the yoga classes and the patients' availability, yoga may prove to be a more cost-effective treatment alternative. Currently, it is estimated that chronic low back pain costs Americans approximately $50 billion every year.