Yoga for Chronic Low Back Pain

ON September 9, 2019
Yoga for Lower Back Pain

By Baxter Bell

I was pretty excited to see the results of a recent study Yoga as Good as Physical Therapy for Back Pain. I even had a chance this spring to hear in person the study’s lead researcher, Robert Sager, MD, talk about the preliminary findings of the study.

This study was looking to see if yoga was as effective for those with chronic low back pain as physical therapy.

We know from multiple earlier studies that yoga can lower pain, decrease pain medication use, and improve function in those with chronic low back pain. However, physical therapy is considered the gold standard physical modality for those with chronic back pain, meaning that it has been studied and proven to be effective at lowering pain and increasing function, and is widely accepted for use for those with this condition. Apparently, family doctors refer about 20% of their patients with chronic low back pain to physical therapy as an adjunct to their treatment plan. One drawback of this approach is that physical therapy sessions can be expensive, and if you don’t have insurance, it’s unlikely you will actually go to see the therapist. Yoga could be a good low cost alternative, if it measures up to the effectiveness of physical therapy.

And this is why I am excited: this study says that it does indeed measure up!

Yoga was found to be equally effective to physical therapy.

Yoga for Chronic Lower Back Pain

The study compared 320 participants, who were divided into three groups: those who did yoga, those who did physical therapy, and those given educational materials. Also of interest was that the study group, who were all low-income, low-education, and non-white residents of Boston, Mass., represent a large portion of the population that could use an effective, low-cost option for improving their back pain. And in some areas the researchers looked at, yoga may be superior to physical therapy, such as pain reduction.

My takeaway from this study, (which like all such studies has some downsides, too, which the article highlights for those interested), is that we now have evidence that yoga is on equal footing with physical therapy as an adjunct treatment option for generalized (low back pain with no definitive diagnosis, such as spinal stenosis or ruptured disc, as the underlying cause) chronic low back pain. I’ll be encouraging my students who are able to take advantage of physical therapy referrals by the docs to continue to take advantage of that proven treatment option.

However, I will also now feel more confident than ever to have them add yoga to the mix when back pain is chronic.

If you decide to give yoga for back pain a try and you are also seeing a physical therapist, it is important to let your physical therapist know that you are doing yoga, so everyone knows what you are doing to address your condition. And for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to do physical therapy, I’ll suggest trying an appropriate back care yoga class or scheduling a yoga private with an experienced teacher or yoga therapist to develop an appropriate home practice. Thank you, Dr. Sager for your important contribution to our understanding of yoga’s benefits compared with physical therapy.  

Caution: if you have a newer case of chronic low back pain and have not seen your doctor to have it evaluated, it would be a good idea to do so before initiating any yoga program to rule out more serious causes of low back pain.

Yoga for Chronic Back PainJoin Baxter for his upcoming workshop at Namaste, Yoga for Back Pain, on Saturday, September 14.

*This post was originally published on the Yoga for Healthy Aging Blog.

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