Yoga and Back Pain
Just about everybody experiences back pain at one time or another. It’s one of the most frequent reasons for visiting a primary care doctor’s office.
Photo credit: Irma Photography
The most common diagnosis for low back pain is lumbar strain and spasm. Damage to back muscles and ligaments most frequently occurs by lifting and twisting at the same time, but the slightest sudden movement can result in crippling back pain.
Sometimes a disc between the back bones ‘slips’ and causes sciatica, a radiating pain into the leg. Arthritis can develop in the facet joints, tiny joints linking one back bone to the next. Postural problems, injuries, and conditions like scoliosis can all contribute to poor alignment of the back bones with resulting pain.
Even though back pain is so common, modern medicine does a poor job of healing it. Too many people end up having surgeries that don’t help and worsening chronic pain that won’t resolve even with strong narcotic pain medication. With back pain, self healing and prevention of future episodes are keys to a happy back.
The trick is to keep back muscles strengthened, stretched, and relaxed through a program of Yoga therapy that also nourishes the discs between the vertebrae, or back bones, and strengthens abdominal and other core muscles.
Yoga and Back Pain
Yoga and back pain are a good fit. Research studies show that Yoga therapy reduces pain, improves ability to function in daily tasks, and improves the ability to control pain levels which decreases feelings of helplessness and depression. In one study 88 percent of a Yoga therapy group either reduced the amount of medication they were taking or eliminated it completely compared to only 35 percent of controls.(1,2)
How Yoga Can Help Your Back
- Improves posture
- Relaxes and stretches tense muscles
- Addresses the manomaya kosha, the emotional and mental body, that contributes to and sometimes creates perceived pain
- Strengthens core muscle groups
- Nourishes discs by helping them to imbibe, or soak up, needed nutrients
- Lowers stress levels
- Brings awareness of alignment
What to Do If You Have Back Pain
- You may need to see a physician to rule out infection, neurological problems, fractures and cancer. While they are rare causes of back pain, they shouldn’t be missed. Please realize though that a good work-up by a primary care physician does NOT mean that Xrays, MRIs and CTs are necessary and their inappropriate use can even be harmful. A good history and physical done by an appropriately trained physician is usually all that is needed.
- Science suggests that the fastest recoveries are made by those who begin physical therapy the day of an injury or the day after. It follows that the same is true for Yoga therapy. Bed rest is no longer recommended. Be gentle at first, move slowly, and don’t push for extreme postures.
- Find a Yoga therapist or qualified Yoga teacher nearby for individualized guidance, at least initially.
- Maintain a daily (or at least thrice weekly) home program to prevent further injury and pain. Here is Kaivalyadhama’s Yoga therapy program for back pain. The institution of Kaivalyadhama is one of India’s oldest and most respected Yoga therapy hospitals. Or here is free podcast by my yogi friend, Satyam, at Renaissance Yoga.
Most cases of sudden acute back pain are muscle strains and sprained ligaments that will resolve on their own in six to eight weeks no matter what intervention is chosen – even if you simply do nothing except go about daily activities as much as possible. Most ‘slipped’ discs also self heal on their own through the power of nature without any surgery. Help the body to heal through Yoga rather than hinder it with fear, anxiety, and increased muscle tension.
- Williams K et al. Therapeutic applications of Iyengar yoga for healing chronic low back pain. International Journal of Yoga Therapy. 2003; 13:55-67.
- Sherman KJ et al. Comparing Yoga, exercise, and a self care book for chronic low back pain: a randomized, controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 2005 Dec 20; 143:849-56.