Is Yoga As Good As Physical Therapy For Back Pain?

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If you’re one of the estimated 100 million Americans that suffer from back pain, a new study suggests that yoga could be an excellent pain relief tool. Researchers at Boston Medical Center have created a protocol that can be as safe and effective and physical therapy.


Gathering the Data

The research team asked doctors, yoga teachers and physical therapists to help them develop a yoga protocol tailored to back pain sufferers. They then recruited 320 chronic low back pain sufferers from diverse racial backgrounds to test their new routine. The participants were randomly split into three groups for a year-long study:

  1. The student group took the researcher’s weekly yoga class for three months. They were guided through gentle poses and relaxation techniques. Complex poses were avoided.
  2. The physical therapy group was sent to 15 physical therapy visits over three months.
  3. The education group was given a self-help guide on back pain and were subscribed to an educational newsletter.

Rob Saper, study author and Boston Medical Center’s director of integrative medicine, told NPR he chose to compare yoga to physical therapy because, “PT is the most common referral that physicians make for patients with back pain. It’s accepted, it’s reimbursed and it’s offered in most hospitals.”

After the first three months, the student group members were assigned either drop-in classes or home practice for the rest of the year. The physical therapy group was assigned either “booster sessions” or home practice.


The Results

Using a 23-point questionnaire, researchers assessed changes in pain and function at the beginning, 12-week point and end of the study. They discovered that participants in the yoga and physical therapy groups reported the similar improvements to pain levels, function, quality of life and overall satisfaction at both the 12-week and 1-year mark.

To the researcher’s pleasant surprise, both groups saw a sharp 50 percent drop in the use of pain medication. By comparison, the education group saw no drop during the study. A startlingly 70 percent of participants were relying on pain medication when the study began.


What It Means

The findings, published in June of 2017, bolster the new treatment guidelines for back pain from the American College of Physicians. The guidelines recommend that people with everyday back pain, as opposed to pain from injury or illness, avoid pain medication and seek alternatives like massage and yoga.

Saper stresses that back pain sufferers should seek gentle routines designed with back pain in mind. The routine his teamed developed, called “Back to Health,” is available for free online alongside a guidebook for anyone interested in leading classes. As more and more research supports the use of non-pharmaceutical chronic pain treatments, sufferers are one step closer to having these alternative therapies accepted by mainstream medicine.

As Saper himself noted, “Maybe yoga should be considered as a potential therapy that can be more widely disseminated and covered [by insurance].”


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