Yoga for Back Pain? Maybe

Last month The New York Times posted an article about yoga and stretching for “chronic low back pain”. It was based on a 26 week study of over 200 sufferers (the mean age was late 40s). The study concluded that a regular practice of yoga (3 or more times a week) or stretching improved the participants’ condition in over half of the population. While this is certainly fantastic news, and we believe that studies like this are essential in order to educate the general population about the infinite benefits of physical activity, there are a lot of generalizations here that we feel should be addressed.For one, what is stretching and what is yoga? Defining Yoga can bring up many conflicting idealogies and could be its own blog post. BUT what we can say here is that there are SO many different styles of yoga these days that saying you took a yoga class is like describing a car by the number of wheels it has (all cars have 4 wheels and are all therefore created equal, right?). Also, yoga is sometimes not just stretching. Some classes will have you holding deep stretches for long periods of time, some classes will have you flapping your arms around as fast as you can in 3 minutes, some classes will have you moving in and out of poses holding them for only one breath each, some classes focus on breath, some focus on handstands, etc. etc. The point is that it is important to consider what KIND of yoga you are doing and is that type of yoga beneficial for YOU!

What about stretching? According to this study, the stretching group “went to weekly stretching classes built around aerobic exercises, deep stretches and strengthening exercises focused on the trunk and leg muscles”. This distinction is also made later when the writer said that “her study looked specifically at deep stretching that is far more involved than the brief, light stretches most people do before or after a workout” These are important distinctions to point out because they were not just stretching. There was also strengthening involved. Depending on the cause of the back pain, stretching alone may not actually help. What can be said for certain is that if the people in this study were sedentary prior to the study (which the study does not specify), then almost ANY kind of lower impact activity would most likely make them feel better. But what about a case where the activity (or to be technical, the compensation patterns used by the practitioner in said activity) caused the pain? For example, what if someon’s yoga practice was hurting them?  These are all things to think about when evaluating the validity of such studies.

The real question here is… what the heck IS chronic low back pain? According to Wikipedia, chronic pain is pain that persists for longer than 6 months. According to the Mayoclinic, most people in the United States will complain about back pain at some point in their lives. Because it is such a major complaint, especially when it is chronic, and there doesn’t seem to be any one “cure all” method, articles such as this one can become very influential. The problem here lies in the generalizations. “Oh! I have chronic back pain, so I should do yoga!” seems like a reasonable conclusion to come to after reading such an article. But we feel that this is a place where critical thinking is key.

Even though it may be a common occurrence, if you have back pain that persists longer than 6 months the first step you should take is not take up yoga, it should be to go to a doctor. Some people will accept chronic aches and pains as a bi-product of aging, but any sensation of pain that you have is your body trying to bring your attention to something. A useful question to ask yourself is WHY do you have back pain? There are several physical ailments that could cause this: herniated discs, spinal stenosis, osteoporosis, bone growth, etc. All of these ailments are different from one another and require a different solution. To say that yoga or stretching could improve all of these conditions is an overstatement to say the least. Even if your physician does not find a physiological reason for your pain after testing, it is still imperative to investigate the cause of the pain. There is a cause, even if it does not show up on an MRI. Maybe you have an imbalance in your back erectors (muscles) versus your abdominal muscles, maybe you have a functional scoliosis, maybe you have tight hips which are causing you to compensate for movement in your trunk, maybe you have a tight diaphragm, maybe there is a digestive issue. etc. Again, each of these issues has a unique solution that needs to be addressed if the goal is to truly eliminate your back pain for good.

Billions of dollars a year are spent on quick fixes and trial and error “cure all” methods to back pain. Your health is certainly worth a financial investment, but instead of a quick fix, maybe a program that was designed for you would be a better solution. There are a plethora of physical therapists, acupuncturists,  or… you could try us! That’s kind of what we do!