The popularity of yoga as a fitness regimen has grown considerably over the years because of its holistic approach to better health. Not only does it help improve muscle strength and posture, it also reduces stress and promotes better focus and concentration.

Now, a new study featured in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that yoga could even help people deal with chronic back pain.

Researchers from several U.S. institutions set out to determine how effective yoga can be in treating lower back pain. They wanted to know if the practice can be used as an alternative to taking pain medications or physical therapy.

The team examined more than 300 racially diverse and predominantly low-income patients who suffered from chronic back pain. The participants were then divided into three groups, where one received weekly yoga sessions, another one received weekly physical therapy (PT) sessions, and the other one received a book and regular newsletters on how to manage pain. The third group served as the control for the study.

Yoga As An Alternative To Physical Therapy

After a year of study, the researchers assessed the participants' level of pain and function following the weekly sessions. They discovered that patients who were assigned to the yoga classes experienced about the same amount of improvement in pain and function as those who received PT sessions.

The research team also saw a significant drop in the number of patients who were taking medications for their chronic back pain. About 70 percent of the participants were on pain medication at the start of the program. By the time it had wrapped up, the number of yoga and physical therapy participants still on medication was reduced to about 50 percent. Those who were assigned to the education group, however, did not show any decline in their medication use.

Rob Saper, a researcher from the Boston Medical Center and one of the authors of the study, pointed out that the findings show a significant pain reduction for the participants. However, he couldn't recommend that back pain sufferers should sign up for just any yoga class. The new study helped identify specific relaxation techniques and poses that could prove helpful and safe for patients.

Physicians often prescribe physical therapy to patients suffering from back pain. Saper said PT is an accepted form of treatment and is offered in most hospitals. Because of this, he and his colleagues chose to compare its benefits to those of yoga.

If studies prove that yoga can be an effective alternative to physical therapy, the researchers hope that it could be considered a potential treatment for back pain. It could also be offered to more patients and covered by their healthcare insurance.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Stefan Kertesz from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Dr. Douglas Chang from the University of California, San Diego wrote that treating lower back pain is a complicated task and that the findings of the study showed only modest improvements.

However, they also pointed out that results offer tangible benefits to taking yoga classes without much risk for patients.

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