If you suffer from chronic low back pain, yoga might bring you as much relief as physical therapy, a new trial shows. The less positive finding: Both therapies fell far short of helping everyone.
People who did yoga or physical therapy reported less pain on average after 12 weeks — an improvement that held up over a year. And some were able to cut out pain medication.
Still, many failed to get meaningful relief, the researchers noted.
Experts said the findings reflect the reality of chronic low back pain: No single treatment has proven widely effective.
“We do not have any magic bullet,” said lead researcher Dr. Robert Saper.
According to guidelines published earlier this year by the American College of Physicians (ACP), non-drug options should be the first-line treatment against low back pain.
That’s largely because pain medications and other drugs are not very effective, and carry side effects.
Yoga was included on the ACP’s list of options, said Saper, an associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine.
But even in recommending yoga — and tactics like heat wraps, acupuncture and massage — the ACP stressed that the evidence was limited. So far, studies have shown “small” to “moderate” benefits with each therapy.
Elissa Stein, 53, a freelance writer from New York City, said she’d dealt with bouts of debilitating back pain ever since she was injured in a car accident at age 16.
“It’s terrible when you feel you’re not capable of doing anything except taking a muscle relaxant,” she said.
She decided to try yoga about 14 years ago.
At first, Stein said, yoga offered a “good stretch.” But then she started to realize other benefits — namely, the focus on conscious breathing and meditation.
“Now I’m helping myself, instead of relying on medication,” Stein said.
The new study focused on patients who might not often have access to complementary therapies. It included 320 patients who were low-income and mostly minority, all of whom had persistent back pain for at least 12 weeks. Their mean age was 46.
The patients were randomly assigned to either 12 weekly yoga classes, 15 physical therapy sessions, or an “education” group that received a book on managing back pain.