Is yoga a proper treatment for your back pain?

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You are probably aware of a variety of pain medications and treatments for back tension, stiffness or ache, but depending on the duration of your symptoms, medical experts are now rediscovering the usefulness of ancient techniques to reduce your back pain and improve your health.

It is thought that yoga can reduce your pain, lessen your stress levels and prevent future problems. But how valid are these claims? Let’s investigate.

Yoga seems to provide a new treatment pathway for chronic low back pain.

Figure 1. Yoga seems to provide a new treatment pathway for chronic low back pain.

Yoga and chronic pain

Most back pain types go away on their own within six weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic (1). So, people with discomfort and aches benefit from certain postures that can help lengthen their backbone, stretch and fortify their muscles; but what about those affected by chronic pain?

In Australia chronic pain affects many people (2):

  • 1 in 5 people (including kids and teens).
  • 1 in 3 people over the age of 65.
  • 80% of aged care residents.
  • Low back pain is the number one cause of early retirement and poverty.

Yoga seems to provide a new treatment pathway for these issues. For example, a recent systematic review of 12 trials involving 1,080 participants from three countries (The United States, India and the United Kingdom) found that yoga can be more effective treatment than non-exercised interventions, and an equal or slightly more effective intervention than non-yoga exercise for chronic low back pain (3).

An Australian researcher from the University of Sydney, Dr Adrian Traeger, led a published investigation about the current approach and changes to diagnosis and management of lower back pain. He indicated that if your pain is chronic (started a long time ago), practising yoga and mindfulness probably are the go-to treatments for your case (4).

Stress levels, pain and yoga

When you are very stressed, you are much more susceptible to injury. This is because your body generates a torrent of chemical changes that lead to involuntary muscle contractions, spasms and tension.

A stress situation often impacts on your back. But if you are frequently stressed, a vicious cycle of chronic pain and other health issues is likely to arise. For instance, in 2015, a review found that healthcare workers suffer distress, burnout and psychosomatic problems as a result of lacking stress management skills, organisational factors, and low social support at work (5).

Figure2. Yoga can bring a comprehensive solution to your stress and chronic back pain.

Figure2. Yoga can bring a comprehensive solution to your stress and chronic back pain.

However, this year, a systematic review of the newest literature about the use of yoga to manage stress and burnout in healthcare workers found that yoga is an effective tool for the prevention and management of musculoskeletal and psychological issues (6).

In this recent study, stress levels and burnouts were consistently reduced in the healthcare workers who practice yoga techniques and mind-body meditation. Moreover, their physical problems and their quality of sleep showed important improvement with their yoga practice (6).

Therefore, yoga can bring a comprehensive solution to your stress and chronic back pain. Historically, yoga produces a wider range of techniques to promote wellbeing and balance among mind–brain–body functions. It develops skills like dedication, intellectual perceptiveness, and meditation for mitigating suffering and producing higher levels of consciousness (7).

Proper treatment for you

Figure3. Current medical studies present yoga as an effective non-pharmacological treatment option for improving back pain, disability and physical functioning.

Figure3. Current medical studies present yoga as an effective non-pharmacological treatment option for improving back pain, disability and physical functioning.

Social media and television advertise information about the benefits of medication and surgery for back pain conditions.  Some popular treatments involve anti-inflammatory medications, pain relievers or analgesics. Other treatment options include opioids, muscle relaxants, antidepressant and steroid injections.

However, the rediscovery of yoga and its combination with other less invasive interventions are illuminating a new promising pathway to restoring health. For example, yoga may improve its effects if combined with chiropractic care, acupuncture, cognitive-behavioural therapy, reflexology and ointments.

In summary, current medical studies present yoga as an effective nonpharmacological treatment option for improving back pain, disability and physical functioning (8). So, if you get a green light from your medical practitioner, yoga is a proper treatment for you, because it can reduce your back pain, current and future psychological issues, and your levels of stress and exhaustion. It will also enhance the quality of your sleep.

Before practising yoga inform your instructor about your specific pain and restrictions. They know about protective modifications for certain poses and can guide you to ensure you do them correctly and prevent injuries, such as strains and sprains.

References

1) Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Symptoms, back pain and easy definition. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/back-pain/basics/definition/sym-20050878. Visit date: 27/02/2019.

2) Curatolo, S. (2017). PRE-BUDGET SUBMISSION 2018-19. https://impactinvestingaustralia.com/wp-content/uploads/2018_19-Impact-Capital-Australia-pre-Budget-Submission-FINAL.pdf

3) Whitehead, P. B. (2018). The Effect of Yoga on Chronic Nonspecific Low Back Pain. AJN The American Journal of Nursing, 118(2), 64.

4) The University of Sydney. Low back pain? Expect something different from your GP now… https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2017/11/13/low-back-pain–expect-something-different-from-your-gp-now.html#. Visit date: 27/02/2019.

5) Ruotsalainen  JH, Verbeek  JH, Mariné  A, Serra  C. (2015). Preventing occupational stress in healthcare workers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD002892. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD002892.pub5.

6) Cocchiara, Rosario. A., Peruzzo, Margherita., Mannocci, Alice., …& La Torre, Giuseppe. (2019). The Use of Yoga to Manage Stress and Burnout in Healthcare Workers: A Systematic Review.J. Clin. Med. 8(3), 284; https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8030284.

7) Feuerstein G. (2011). Encyclopedia of Yoga and Tantra. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

8) Highland, K. B., Schoomaker, A., Rojas, W., Suen, J., Ahmed, A., Zhang, Z., … & Buckenmaier III, C. C. (2018). Benefits of the restorative exercise and strength training for operational resilience and excellence yoga program for chronic low back pain in service members: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 99(1), 91-98.

*The author thanks and acknowledges the feedback provided by Vanadana Khular, Clifford Milne and Lauryn Pountney.

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