Thursday, February 11, 2010

Got back pain? A new study shows yoga may help

If you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, then you know how highly I value the practice of yoga. Its unique blend of meditation, breathing, and stretching perfectly reflects the integrative approach to healing on which I’ve built my clinical practice. In fact, next to walking, yoga is easily my most-recommended form of exercise for anyone looking for a healthier, happier life.

Why? Well, for one, it’s one of the most effective natural stress-relievers you can find—offering your mind and your body a quiet break from the worries of daily life. But more than that, yoga has also revealed itself as a clinically proven therapy for a wide range of modern disorders—including, as one new study shows, the all-too-common struggle with debilitating chronic pain.

In this study, recently published in the journal Spine, researchers randomly assigned 90 chronic lower back pain sufferers between the ages of 18 and 70 either conventional treatment or therapeutic yoga for six months. During this time period, approximately half of the patients took specialized Iyengar yoga classes twice a week, while the remainder continued with standard care, including the use of rescue pain medication.

The results at the end of 24 weeks revealed a noticeable difference in the responses of both groups. Subjects practicing yoga reported significantly greater pain relief and mobility than those who were limited to standard treatment. What’s more, standard depression symptoms also improved by a noticeably higher margin in the yoga group when compared with the scores of the controls.

The most impressive part? Researchers found that the benefits of yoga weren’t limited to the six months in which subjects actually participated in the classes. In fact, this group’s improvements in pain intensity, disability, and depression also lasted a full six months after the twice-weekly regimen ended—quite possibly due to continued home practice.

This is compelling evidence of the power of yoga—and mind-body oriented exercise in general—when it comes to resolving chronic health issues. And it’s not the first of its kind… which is one of the many reasons I always recommend yoga practice to my patients, and practice it myself on a daily basis. Its benefits to your health—physically, mentally, and emotionally—are truly profound.

Even so, it’s important to note that this particular study examined the benefits of a very specific style of yoga—Iyengar is a form of hatha yoga, which uses props like blocks, straps, and pillows to facilitate asanas (that is, positions or postures) that may otherwise be impossible for someone with a specific limitation (such as leg, neck, or back pain). Iyengar also focuses strongly on alignment, making it a perfect choice if you suffer from spine-related issues—provided you find a certified instructor to guide you through the process.

Whatever your particular situation, though, one thing is clear: Yoga remains one of your greatest natural sources of healing—posing considerably less risk to your health than drugs, and offering the considerably greater gift of inner serenity and peace.

SOURCE: Williams K, Abildso C, Steinberg L, Doyle E, Epstein B, Smith D, Hobbs G, Gross R, Kelley G, Cooper L. “Evaluation of the effectiveness and efficacy of iyengar yoga therapy on chronic low back pain.” Spine, 2009 Sep 1;34(19):2066-76.

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