En español | Yoga may help men and women struggling with everyday activities because of chronic back pain. A new study found that after three months of weekly yoga classes, people with mild to moderate back pain were able to increase their range of movement and better carry out their daily work and household chores, compared with a similar group of people who didn't practice yoga.
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Many people experience lower back pain — pain that drives Americans to spend billions of dollars a year on drugs and other therapies. A number of studies have suggested that yoga can help people who experience back pain. This latest research — published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine — builds on that evidence as scientists try to quantify and understand what effect this ancient practice can have on modern maladies.
In the largest and longest test of yoga's effect on range of motion for those with back pain, British researchers followed 313 people with mild to moderate back pain. Half were assigned to a weekly yoga class, while those in the other group were given an information booklet on back pain and told to continue their usual treatment routines. People in the yoga group were taught poses aimed at relaxing and strengthening the lower back, and they were encouraged to practice the poses at home at least twice a week.
Researchers asked participants to assess how difficult it was for them to perform various movements — including standing, walking, climbing stairs, bending down, getting out of bed or a chair, or performing their usual household chores. At three months, the yoga group could perform about 30 percent more tasks and movements than those in the non-yoga group, said lead investigator David Torgerson, director of the York Trials Unit at the University of York in England. Among those in the yoga group, even patients who continued to have pain showed an improvement in their ability to perform normal daily activities.
"Generally the findings are that yoga can improve people's quality of life," Torgerson said. Though the classes officially stopped after three months, he added, the advantages among the yoga participants were less pronounced but still observable at the end of the year.
"I think it's important to recognize that this benefit is moderate, it's not a cure," says Tim Carey, M.D., director of the Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The patients seem to have benefited in function, but their pain level didn't change that much," he says. "Whether there is anything special about yoga as opposed to other forms of exercise such as stretching is not clear," Carey continues. But the take-away message according to Carey is: "Exercise is good for back pain."
Laurie Udesky is a freelance writer in California.