Yoga has small benefit for chronic back pain: study

In a new UK study of adults with chronic lower back pain, a 12-week yoga class led to a small improvement in how well participants could perform daily activities, but did not ease their pain.

The report follows another recent study from Washington State that found modest and similar benefits from yoga and stretching classes in people with chronic back pain.

“It gives us more confidence that the benefits seen with this class-based intervention seem to apply when it’s done in different areas by different teachers,” said Dr. Timothy Carey, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who has researched back pain but wasn’t involved in either report.

The UK study, led by David Torgerson from the University of York, involved 313 adults who’d had chronic or recurring back pain for an average of 10 years. They were randomly split into two groups - one of which went to yoga classes once a week for 12 weeks, and the other that was only given a back pain information booklet.

The yoga classes included breathing and relaxation techniques as well as poses to improve strength and mobility. People in that group were also given mats and encouraged to practice a couple of times a week at home.

Before and after the 12-week program, the participants filled out questionnaires on how much trouble they had with daily tasks, their pain and general health.

Average “disability” levels started out at 8 on a scale of 0 to 24 in both groups, with 24 representing the most difficulty with everyday activities. By the end of the yoga classes, those scores had dropped more than 2 points, to between 5.5 and 6 among yoga participants, but didn’t change in the non-yoga group.

A 2-point difference is something a patient would notice, Carey told Reuters Health, but “we’re not talking cure here.” The improved functioning remained for the nine months that the researchers tracked participants after the trial ended.

However, there was no clear difference in back pain in the yoga group compared to people who were just given an educational booklet. Both improved by an average of 1 to 4 points on a 100-point pain scale.

Researchers have wondered whether yoga might be a good option for people with chronic back pain because it rarely causes serious side effects and can be done relatively cheaply in group classes - or individually for no money at all, once the techniques are learned.

“An advantage of yoga is that a lot of people practice yoga at home. It seemed to be a therapy that not only could you be trained how to do it, you could continue after the (classes) had finished,” Torgerson told Reuters Health.

He said that the researchers couldn’t tell from the study whether it was only the stretching and exercise elements of yoga that made a difference for patients, as the Washington study suggested - or whether some of its mind-body components were helpful as well.

Regardless, they wrote in their Annals of Internal Medicine report that a long-term yoga program might help maintain the improvements in back function seen in people who took the classes. And they added that future research should measure the effects of yoga alongside other common treatments for chronic back pain, including spinal manipulation and talk therapy, to see how it stacks up in comparison.

A single yoga or stretching session may cost about $20, making it cheaper than the alternative treatments.

Carey said that general exercise and stretching - whether it’s done in a yoga class or not - is helpful for most people with chronic back pain.

“The important thing about exercise is, you need to do a type of exercise that you enjoy and that you can work with in your schedule and your lifestyle,” he said. “It’s important to kind of hang in there with the exercise, and I think that’s where the classes may help,” Carey added.

SOURCE: Annals of Internal Medicine, online October 31, 2011.

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