December 19, 2005

Yoga is more effective than conventional exercise for low back pain, Group Health study finds

Seattle—Yoga appears to be more effective for low back pain than conventional exercise or getting a self-care book, according to a first-of-its kind study conducted by researchers at Group Health Center for Health Studies and published in the December 20 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study involved 101 adults with low back pain who were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

  • One group attended 12 weekly, 75-minute classes to learn yoga and practiced at home.
  • A second group attended 12 weekly, 75-minute sessions of aerobic, strengthening, and stretching exercise, plus home practice.
  • A third group received a self-care book on back pain.

After 12 weeks, the patients in the yoga group were better able to do daily activities involving the back than were the patients in the exercise or education groups. After 26 weeks, the patients in the yoga group had better back-related function and less pain. Also, fewer people in the yoga group used pain relievers.

"Most people have experienced back pain at some point in their lives," explained Karen Sherman, PhD, a Group Health researcher and the lead author of the study. "Sometimes the pain goes away in a few days, but sometimes it lasts for weeks. And unfortunately, the treatments offered by modern Western medicine are only modestly effective."

Current treatments for low back pain include pain relievers—such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), pain killers, and muscle relaxants—and exercise.

"Although exercise is one of the few proven treatments for chronic low back pain, its effects are often small and we haven't known whether one form is better than another," Sherman added. "So we designed a study to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of a gentle program of yoga for people with this condition."

While it's estimated that about one million people currently practice some form of yoga for relief of back pain, questions about yoga's value for this condition have persisted. Sherman's study, which is the largest randomized controlled trial to date, helps to prove its effectiveness.

The yoga students in Sherman's study learned 17 poses from viniyoga, a style that's easy to learn and typically allows poses to be adapted for use by various body types.

People interested in learning yoga for relief of low back pain should choose an instructor who is experienced working with students who have this condition, Sherman recommended.

Her study was funded by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. Other researchers on the study were Group Health's Daniel C. Cherkin, PhD; Janet Erro, RN; and Diana Miglioretti, PhD; and University of Washington Professor of Medicine Richard A. Deyo.

Group Health Center for Health Studies
Group Health Research Institute does practical research that helps people like you and your family stay healthy. The Institute is the research arm of Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative, a consumer-governed, nonprofit health care system. Founded in 1947, Group Health Cooperative coordinates health care and coverage. Group Health Research Institute changed its name from Group Health Center for Health Studies in 2009. Since 1983, the Institute has conducted nonproprietary public-interest research on preventing, diagnosing, and treating major health problems. Government and private research grants provide its main funding.

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