Low back pain is a common often debilitating problem that can interfere with the performance of everyday tasks. Most doctors recommend some combination of painkillers and exercise to treat low back pain, but complete relief is often elusive. More than one million Americans use yoga, a form of “mind-body” exercise, as a treatment for low back pain. But until now, western medical literature has not evaluated its effectiveness.

In an article published in the December 20, 2005 Annals of Internal Medicine , researchers compared the effectiveness of yoga, conventional exercise (a combination of aerobics, strengthening exercises, and stretching), and a self-care book for the treatment of chronic low back pain. They found that after 12 weeks, yoga was significantly more effective than conventional exercise or a self-care book in improving back-related function.

About the Study

The researchers recruited 101 men and women, aged 20 to 64 years, with chronic back pain. They randomly assigned the patients to one of three treatments:

  • Attend 12 weekly, 75-minute yoga classes and practice yoga at home (the type of yoga taught in this class was viniyoga , a therapeutic style of yoga that emphasizes safety)
  • Attend 12 weekly, 75-minute sessions of aerobic, strengthening, and stretching exercises, and practice these at home
  • Receive a self-care book about back pain

All study subjects reported on their level of back pain, limitations of daily activities due to the pain, and use of painkillers at the start of the study, and then six, 12, and 26 weeks later.

Back-related function was significantly better in the yoga group compared to the conventional exercise and self-care book groups at 12 weeks. At 26 weeks, the yoga group had significantly less pain and significantly better back-related function compared to the self-care book group.

This study had at least one important limitation. The yoga group was taught by a single instructor who had specifically designed this class for patients with back pain. As a result, its findings would not be expected to apply to other viniyoga classes.

How Does This Affect You?

Chronic low back pain is one of most vexing problems in medicine. Although a variety of treatments may be helpful for different back pain sufferers, there is no evidence that one treatment is consistently more effective than any other. While this study certainly did not prove that viniyoga is the best treatment, the results are encouraging and cause for muted celebration given yoga’s popularity, low cost and other potential health benefits.

There are many different types of yoga. Viniyoga, which was used in this study, is a therapeutic style of yoga that emphasizes safety and healing. Other types of yoga, such as ashtanga (“power”) yoga, are more physically demanding, and may not be appropriate for someone with chronic low back pain.

If you decide to pursue yoga for the treatment of low back pain, seek out an instructor who has experience working with individuals who have low back pain. Be sure your instructor is aware of your medical issues, and ask him or her to indicate any poses you should avoid during class.