A new study compared yoga, conventional A therapeutic exercise and the information contained in a popular back pain book to determine which was the most effective in treating chronic low-back pain.

The results showed that people who participated in weekly yoga classes for 12 weeks experienced the greatest benefits.

The Study

Karen Sherman, an epidemiologist and researcher at Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, and her colleagues chose 101 participants between 20 and 64 years of age who had chronic but not serious low-back Pain.

The researchers separated the participants, mostly women in their 40s, into three groups. One group took classes in viniyoga, a therapeutic type of yoga that's relatively easy to learn and emphasizes safety.

The second group attended specially designed therapeutic exercise classes taught by a physical therapist and comprised of stretching and strength training. The third group was asked to read The Back Pain Helpbook.

During the 26-week study, the participants were interviewed four times, including prior to the start the study and at the end, to assess their pain level, ability to do daily tasks and how much pain medication they took.

All three groups reported improved function. However, those who took the yoga class experienced the greatest gains-78% of the group improved by at least two points on the Roland Disability Scale, a standardized measure that assesses the limitation on physical function due to back pain.

Of the people who participated in the exercise class, 63% reported at least a two-point improvement, while 47% of those who read the book reported a similar benefit.

The yoga participants also reduced their use of pain medicine more than those in the other two groups. At the end of the 26 weeks, only 21% of the people in the yoga class were taking medication for their back pain; 50% had been doing so prior to the start of the study. The use of pain medication for the exercise group dropped to 5O% from 57%, and those who read the book actually increased their use of pain medication-from 5O% to 59%, according to the researchers.

For people who are looking to do something for themselves, you could clearly say that yoga is the best," says Sherman.

Why Yoga Helps

Sherman says yoga may be effective in alleviating back pain because many people are unaware of how they move their bodies. The breathing component of yoga makes people more conscious of their bodies and of movements that might contribute to their back problems, she says.

Sherman says that this is the largest study to date that compares different therapies for chronic low-back pain. Larger studies may tease out the benefits of yoga compared with other forms of exercise.

She also emphasizes that it is important to choose the right yoga instructor if you are experiencing back pain.

A Tailored Approach

Dr. Andrew Sherman, head of medical rehabilitation at the Spine Institute at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, says that although this study shows that yoga is helpful in treating back pain, the best therapy is one that is tailored to each patient. Someone who is under stress and has tight muscles might be a good candidate for yoga, but another person who has very weak muscles might also benefit from other strength-building exercises, he says.

Because this study included only approximately 35 people in each group, a larger study is needed before yoga can be shown to be definitively better than other therapies, he says' "You can't throw other therapies under the bus based on J! patients."

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in