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Ah, my aching back! (and why yoga may help)

My lower back aches. And with good reason. During the past three weeks, much of it spent caring for an elderly aunt in England, I’ve been mostly sitting. In planes. On trains. And, yes, in automobiles, stuck in England’s unending traffic jams. (Minnesota may have just two seasons — winter and road repair — but southeastern England has only one: road delays.)

Since returning to Minnesota, I’ve logged long, long hours in front of my computer, catching up on work. Very bad for the back.

But, undoubtedly, my back is complaining (loudly!) about the six nights I slept on my aunt’s sittingroom floor while she was in the hospital (my sister won the twopence coin flip for my aunt’s bed). Very, very bad for the back.

I know what I need to do: get to yoga class. For whenever my back has “acted up” in the past, being more diligent about my downward-facing dogs and half-spinal twists has helped relieve the pain.

Of course, I realize that time (and perhaps a touch of the placebo effect), not yoga, may be why my backache eventually subsides. And what works for one person may not necessarily work for another, particularly since back pain has many causes, including some quite serious ones.

Still, a small, but well-designed study published last month in the journal Spine suggests that yoga can help relieve chronic lower back pain — the kind that up to 85 percent of Americans experience at least once in their lifetime. (As the study’s authors note, low back pain represents the largest category — about 20-25 percent — of medical claims in the United States, racking up a whopping $34 billion in direct medical costs each year.)

For this study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers randomly divided 90 volunteers (aged 23 to 66) with low to moderate lower back pain into two groups. One group took 90-minute yoga classes twice a week for four months. (They were also encouraged to practice yoga at home.) The members of the other group were told they had been put on a wait list for yoga classes and then continued whatever medical treatments they’d already been doing.

At the end of the study, the volunteers in both groups filled out questionnaires. Those in the yoga group reported, on average, greater improvements in pain and mobility. They also reported fewer symptoms of depression. And when contacted six months later, those in the yoga group continued to be faring better.

The study had limitations. Most notably, the volunteers self-reported their symptoms. And the yoga classes in the study were not your run-of-the-mill ones. A particular type of yoga (Iyengar), which emphasizes correct body alignment, was used. And all the instructors leading the classes had experience using yoga therapy for back pain.

Still, I’m grabbing my mat and heading for yoga class first thing Saturday morning. I know my back will thank me.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Alan Smith on 10/02/2009 - 09:57 am.

    Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong are great ways to help back pain. Another therapy you may not have heard of is the Alexander Technique. It’s 100 years old and last year in a major study on lower back pain in the U.K. it was the best therapy beating out chiropractic and the traditional treatment of muscle relaxers and physical therapy.
    Stress may also be part of your pain given the circumstances of your travels. EMDR, PSYCH-K and other “mind” therapies may be beneficial.
    Learn more about the wonderful world of complementary and alternative therapies in UnBreak Your Health (Loving Healing Press 2009). There are also lots of free podcasts on therapies at

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