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Yoga and Physical Therapy Yield Similar Results for Low-Back Pain

July 12, 2017
Findings from an NCCIH-funded study suggested that yoga was equally as effective for pain reduction and increased mobility as physical therapy in a very focused demographic.

The year-long study, conducted at Boston University and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that a structured yoga program may be an effective alternative treatment for low-back pain. (Costs of physical therapy and yoga vary widely but yoga may be a more affordable alternative for low-income adults.)

While a handful of studies have suggested that yoga helps alleviate the symptoms of chronic low-back pain, it hasn't been extensively studied across diverse populations, including racial or ethnic minorities, those with lower socioeconomic status, or those who lack medical benefits or health insurance.Yoga and physical therapy relieve pain similarly in patients with low back pain.

Comparison of 2 Non-Pharmacologic Approaches to Low Back Pain Relief

In this recent study, researchers randomly divided 320 predominantly low-income, racially diverse adults, aged 18-64 years, with chronic low-back pain into one of 3 groups:

  • The first group took one 75-minute yoga class per week, supplemented with home practice.
  • The second group received individual physical therapy of up to 15 one-hour sessions, supplemented with home practice.
  • The final group received an educational handbook on self-care for back pain; every 3 weeks, they received brief newsletters that summarized the main points from assigned chapters.

The study was conducted in 2 parts—a 12-week treatment phase and a 40-week maintenance phase. Yoga and PT participants who attended at least one intervention session during the treatment phase were put into new groups at the12 week point and received the alternate treatment. (Those who started receiving treatment at home were switched into a structured maintenance intervention program and vice versa.) The education group was not re-randomized during the study. 

Researchers measured the participants’ average pain intensity and disability at the beginning of the study, and then at 6, 12, 26, 40, and 52 weeks. Both the yoga and physical therapy groups yielded better results than the education group. What’s more, at 12 weeks, participants undertaking yoga or physical therapy were less likely than those in the education group to use any pain medication. At 52 weeks, improvements among individuals of these two groups were also maintained. The benefits of these two groups appeared to be associated with the number of classes/sessions participants attended.

Researchers plan to expand on their current findings by conducting further analyses on cost effectiveness, work productivity, and perceived depression and anxiety in chronic back pain patients. 

Last updated on: July 13, 2017
Continue Reading:
Clinician as Patient: What I Learned About the Role of Physical Therapy in Pain Management
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