Why Yoga for Back Pain?
Most Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. A study published in the academic journal Neurologic Clinics estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of Americans will suffer some form of back pain in their lives. Most causes of back pain are mechanical or are caused by soft-tissue injury, leading to damage of the discs, joints, or nerves that make up the spinal column.
Back pain can be acute and for some people, so severe as to be debilitating. Back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and a common reason for missed days from work. In addition to loss of income, Americans spend nearly 50 billion annually on treating back pain.
New Treatment Guidelines are a Major Break from the Past
New treatment guidelines from the American College of Physicians state that non-drug treatments should be the first line of therapy for people suffering from back pain. This is a marked difference from treatment guidelines in the past, when medication was commonly prescribed as the first line of treatment to alleviate back pain.
For instance, a study by the American Physical Therapy Association found that in 2012 nearly 3 out of 4 Americans used pain medication to relieve their symptoms, despite the fact that the effectiveness of some of these medications have been questioned. At least one of these medications has been discovered to have no greater impact in alleviating pain than a placebo. Similarly, other treatments for back pain offer little relief. The pain relief from steroid pills and shots are temporary at best and the effectiveness of surgery as compared to non-surgical methods of pain relief are also questionable. In 2009, the American College of Physicians noted the lack of research studies comparing the effectiveness of surgical versus non-surgical procedures to manage and reduce back pain. However, the few studies they found indicated that long-term outcomes among patients who had surgery were similar to those who did not. A study published in the Annuals of the Rheumatic Diseases a decade later found similar results.
The Good News: Yoga Can Be an Effective Treatment for Back Pain
So, what does this all mean? The good news is that a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that yoga is as effective as physical therapy in treating back pain. However, not all yoga is appropriate for people who suffer back pain. Classes specifically designed to address back pain should be gentle and generally include modified versions of poses such as inversions and forward folds.
I’ve wanted a yoga class that focuses on back health on the schedule since opening Bloom Yoga, but have had little interest and have even faced skepticism from other yoga teachers. I remember once, early on, another yoga teacher with many more years of teaching experience than myself responded to my plan by asking, “Why yoga for back pain? Isn’t all yoga for back pain?” This misconception is far from the truth and in fact may be causing more harm than good.
Not all forms of yoga are appropriate for addressing back health issues. Think about it, for a moment. If you’re sitting at a desk in front of a computer for the majority of your workday, what do you look like? You’re most likely hunched over with your shoulders falling forward and your spine rounded, which straightens the natural S-curve of your spine. Because of the rounding of your back and shoulders and the pull of the torso forward over your hips, your head is probably falling forward. This, in turn, strains your neck and the muscles in your upper back and shoulders. With your head falling forward, your gaze most likely drops down. Depending up on the arrangement of your workspace and the location of your computer, you may have to tilt your head up to better see the monitor, thus causing the disks in your neck to be compressed and your shoulders to hunch upwards towards your ears. In this scenario, the last thing you want to do after stepping onto your yoga mat is continue that same pattern of rounding the spine by folding forward repeatedly as in Sun Salutations or having your yoga teacher tell you to return to downward facing dog when you have tight hamstrings and a sore back from sitting all day.
For my personal practice, I enjoy the movement of a vinyasa flow class. However, there are times, too, when I need to give special attention to my back and will adjust my sequences to focus on gentle back bends, like Sphinx, or hip openers like low lunge or Triangle pose. There are many forms of yoga to fit your individual needs. While taking a gentle-style of class may make you feel like you’re missing out on getting a more vigorous workout in—say, of the type you’d experience at the gym—these gentler classes that focus on back health can be a stepping stone back into the gym, your garden, the slopes, your running routine . . . . whatever it is you love. And, if you’re new to yoga and have never experienced it before, you may find that it is something you grow to love, too.
Yoga is about balance – of body, mind & spirit. This includes incorporating these three elements into your life, as well as keeping each of these elements balanced individually. Take care of your body. Try practicing the art of ahimsa, or of doing no harm, and see where it will lead you.
New class starting July 10th: Yoga for Back Health, Monday mornings at 10:30 – 11:45