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Easing Back Pain Through Yoga, Stretching

< Oct. 26, 2011 > -- The next time your back aches, instead of toughing it out with a few pain relievers, you might consider taking a yoga or stretching class.

Photo of two women doing a yoga stretch

A new study found that either of these approaches is more effective at relieving mild to moderate back pain than simply taking pain medication.

"For a person with garden-variety back pain who is willing to move [his] body, the bottom-line is that a beginner's yoga class geared for back pain or a very intensive stretching exercise program would be equally suitable as a treatment," says study author Karen J. Sherman, Ph.D., at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Chronic pain

For two years, Dr. Sherman and her team followed 228 people who had chronic low-back pain. Most were taking pain medication at the start of the study. The participants were divided into three groups: 92 attended a weekly yoga class; 91 attended a weekly stretching class, and the rest were given a self-help book on living with back pain.

Both the weekly yoga and stretching classes lasted 75 minutes per session, and participants were encouraged to practice for 20 minutes a day. They also got to take home an instructional video.

Although the self-help handbook on back pain offered suggested exercises and lifestyle changes, participants in this group did not receive any personalized instruction.

Dr. Sherman's team interviewed all participants midway through treatment, at the end of treatment, and three months after treatment was completed.

Improved results

By the end of the study, all three groups reported an improvement in back pain, but those in the yoga and stretching groups were functionally better off than the self-care group.

People who had done the yoga or stretching classes were also twice as likely as the self-care group to have cut back on pain medication.

The study was published online this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Benefits of exercise

Study co-author Richard A. Devo, M.D., at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, says the study's key message is the importance of exercise.

"Yoga is certainly an option," Dr. Devo says. "But if you like stretching better, that's fine, too. Walking, that's fine. Swimming, that's fine. Biking, that's fine. Basically, what's important is that you choose an activity you enjoy doing. Because you're more liable to keep it up."

If you have back pain, be sure to check with your health care provider before beginning any exercise program.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this website.

Four Back-Friendly Moves

Here are four good exercises for the back from the American Council on Exercise:

  • Bird dog. On hands and knees, extend one leg and the opposite arm so they are both parallel to the floor. Hold for a count of seven. Repeat with opposite arm and leg.

  • Cat-camel. On hands and knees, move slowly between arching your back (like a cat) and rounding it downward (like a two-hump camel).

  • Curl-up. Lie on your back with one leg bent, one straight. Raise your head and shoulders off the floor. Return to starting position and then repeat with the opposite leg bent.

  • Side bridge. Lie on your side with knees bent. Lift your torso with the arm closest to the floor, creating a right angle between your arm and body. Keep your torso and hips in a line. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat on opposite side.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons - Low Back Pain

Archives of Internal Medicine - A Randomized Trial

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine - Yoga for Health