By Genevra Pittman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Weekly yoga classes eased pain and improved functioning in a study of patients with chronic lower back pain; but the yoga sessions weren't any better than regular stretching classes. Participants in both types of classes had better functioning and fewer symptoms after three months than patients in a control group.
"We've known for a while that exercise is good for back pain," said Dr. Timothy Carey, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who wrote a commentary published with the study. Yoga, he told Reuters Health, "seems to be a perfectly good option for people with back pain, but it is not a preferred option."
Finding that yoga and stretching had about equal effects means it was probably the stretching involved in yoga, and not the relaxation or breathing components of the practice, that helped improve functioning and pain symptoms, researchers said today in Archives of Internal Medicine.
The study involved 228 adults with long-lasting back pain, randomly assigned to three groups. The first two groups went to either weekly yoga or stretching classes for 12 weeks and were asked to practice on their own between classes. Both types of classes focused on stretching and strengthening the lower back and legs.
Patients in the third group were given a book with back pain-related exercise and lifestyle advice and information on managing flare-ups.
After the 12-week programme, people in the two intervention groups had significantly lower scores on a questionnaire measuring how much pain interferes with daily activities, compared to those given the book.
The questionnaire rated daily "disability" level on a scale of zero to 23, with 23 being the most severe. The exercise groups dropped from an initial average score of 10 in the yoga group or nine in the stretching group to between four and five in both groups. The control group went from a baseline score of nine to about a seven at 12 weeks.
Sixty percent of people in the yoga group reported improvements in pain, compared to 46% in the stretching classes and just 16% of controls.
Three months after the end of classes, symptom improvements were similar in people who had done either stretching or yoga, and still better than in the third, non-exercise group.
And at both the end of class sessions and three months later, about 40% of the class participants reported cutting back on pain medications, vs 20% in the control group.
"Here is an option that is something worth trying," said Karen Sherman from the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, who led the study.
With either stretching or yoga classes, she told Reuters Health, practice is a must for patients. "There is absolutely no treatment that works for everybody... (but) if they're willing to practice, they should go ahead and give it a try."
Dr. Carey said the findings suggest that the best type of exercise for people with back pain depends on their preferences and what's convenient.
"It's important that people do exercise they enjoy," he said. "That way, they're more likely to stick with it."
The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
While it didn't include people with severe back pain - therefore the findings don't necessarily apply to them - Dr. Carey said that "almost anyone with back pain can benefit from stretching exercises."
Tom Lowes, osteopath at The Putney Clinic of Physical Therapy