Yoga and stretching are equally effective for easing low back pain

Low back pain is extremely common; about 80% of us will experience an episode at some time in our lives. The pain usually goes away in a couple of months or so, but it often recurs. Some people develop a chronic form that lasts three months or longer. There are many treatments for chronic low back pain, but none have proved highly effective. Now, a large controlled trial has found that both yoga and stretching exercises are helpful in improving function and reducing symptoms. Results were published in Archives of Internal Medicine (Oct. 24, 2011).

The study. Researchers at Group Health Cooperative, a large nonprofit health care organization in Seattle, recruited 228 women and men with back pain and assigned them at random to 12 weekly 75-minute classes of yoga (92 patients) or conventional stretching exercises (91 patients), or to reading a self-care book on chronic low back pain (45 patients). The yoga classes were led by experienced instructors of viniyoga, which modifies the traditional postures for people with physical limitations. Licensed physical therapists led the stretching exercise classes. Both the yoga and stretching exercise groups were given handouts and instructional videos and encouraged to practice for 20 minutes on non-class days. Self-care participants were given The Back Pain Helpbook, which provides information on back pain and advice about exercising. In telephone interviews with participants at six weeks, 12 weeks, and 26 weeks after the program began, researchers assessed back-related physical functioning with a standardized questionnaire and asked participants to rate their pain on a 10-point scale.

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