Stretch Yourself: Yoga for Back Pain

Yoga for Back Pain

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If your back is sore, you’re not alone. Back pain is one of the most common reasons for people to miss work and to visit their doctors. In fact, it causes the loss of more than 80 million workdays every year. It’s bad enough to be kept from your job, but persistent back pain can mean missing out on other activities you enjoy as well.

Here’s some good news:  Two recent studies have shown that yoga and organized stretching programs can lessen pain and improve daily functioning for people with low back pain. These investigations–one from the University of Washington published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and another from the UK published in the Annals of Internal Medicine–found that people who participated in a 12-week organized yoga program did better than those who received standard care with a home exercise booklet.

In the first study, people in the yoga group experienced greater restoration of back function compared with the control group, both during the 12-week yoga course and for a year following the yoga classes. However, after a few months, there was no difference in pain relief between the two groups. In addition, several more people  reported increased back pain in the yoga group (12 people out of approximately 150 versus 2 out of a similar-sized group who only received an education booklet). In the second study, people in the yoga group experienced both improved back function and pain relief (individuals who utilized conventional stretching had similar results). The bottom line: Both of these studies suggest that yoga may have potential promising results for chronic back pain.

The Basics of Back Pain

Before you dive into a downward dog, it’s important to understand the nuts and bolts of  your back. Your back is composed of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and discs, which are cushion-like substances between your vertebrae. While structural problems such as disc bulges and ruptures, pinched nerves, arthritis, and other skeletal abnormalities can cause pain, most acute back pain (lasting from several days to weeks) is due to muscular strain and spasm. Sometimes a specific injury will trigger the pain; other times, back pain occurs as a gradual accumulation of mechanical strain from poor posture and other aggravating factors. Your busy life doesn’t do you any favors, either. Working long hours hunched at a desk and toting heavy bags while traveling doesn’t help with maintaining an alignment that will keep your back in its best shape.

For acute pain, interventions such as anti-inflammatory medications (like ibuprofen), massage, warm compresses, hot showers, and gentle stretching can help relieve the symptoms caused by muscle strain and spasm.

For chronic or recurrent pain, the studies found that people who practiced yoga or were involved in a specific back-stretching program for 12 weeks had lasting results even a year later.

How to Support Your Back

With 33 vertebrae and dozens of supporting muscles, your spine is the major axial support for your frame. Its natural curves allow for the proper distribution of load and movement–but this ideal alignment is thrown off by hours spent sitting at modern desks, stressed postures, and repetitive patterns of wear and tear. The yoga programs in the studies included education about proper posture and specific stretches to keep the spine and its muscles mobile and in better alignment. Yoga may have also helped because it encourages well-being through general relaxation and a positive outlook that extends beyond class times. The yoga programs in the studies were specifically designed to treat back pain, but if you’re ready to address a nagging, aching back, don’t delay until you find the perfect program. Proceed with a gentle “just-do-it” approach. Any regular stretching and movement is likely to be better for your back than nothing at all, and it may help get you out of a painful rut. Here are several things to keep in mind as you start your sun salutations and other yoga endeavors.

  • Pay attention to your posture. You should have a moderate natural curve in your lower back (this can be helped with a lumbar support while sitting and lying down). Also, make sure your shoulders aren’t hunched forward.
  • Perform exercises that help your pelvis and spine regain their natural form. Simple movements such as pelvic tilts, gluteal stretches, and gentle spinal twists can help loosen up your lower back.
  • Find a regular yoga program. Local studios and gyms are a good option. Videos may be something to try, too, but practicing with a teacher present will help ensure that you’re doing the exercises correctly.
  • Communicate any injuries you have to the instructor so that he or she is aware of your limitations and can recommend alternative poses as necessary.
  • Listen to your body. If you’re in pain, ease up. Don’t push yourself beyond a level that is comfortable. See your health care provider if your back isn’t improving with yoga.

When to See Your Doctor

If you have any of the following symptoms, schedule a visit with your health care provider–before hitting the yoga mat–to make sure there isn’t a more serious problem.

  • Severe pain that persists longer than 72 hours
  • Pain down your legs
  • Weight loss, fever, or night sweats
  • Weakness or numbness in your legs
  • A history of osteoporosis, cancer, or recent injury
  • Pain that gets worse with treatment

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.