Can Yoga Help With Back Pain?

If you have chronic back pain, you may feel like you have tried everything to relieve your pain. But if you have not yet tried yoga for your back pain, evidence suggests that you may be missing out on some powerful effects.

Mind-body approaches like yoga are some of the best ways to alleviate chronic back pain. However, yoga’s benefits only apply if you choose the right poses — and avoid some critical missteps that could worsen your pain. 

Symptoms and Causes of Back Pain

We have all experienced occasional stiffness or pain in our backs after a poor night of sleep, but back pain that becomes chronic can profoundly affect one’s quality of life. 

Chronic back pain lasts three months or longer and may come and go. It can affect any part of the spine but is usually described as upper, middle, or low back pain.  

Signs and symptoms of chronic back pain include:

● Dull, aching, or burning pain confined to one or more areas of the back.

● Pain that spreads from the low back to the backs of the thighs (sciatica)

● Muscle spasms and/or tightness in the back, pelvis, and/or hips

● Pain that worsens after prolonged sitting or standing

● Difficulty standing up straight, walking, or moving from sitting to standing

The most common cause of chronic back pain is old age. Other potential causes include:

● Arthritis of the spine, which causes gradual thinning of the spinal cartilage

● Spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spinal canal that leads to nerve pain

● Disc problems, such as a herniated or bulging disc

● Previous injury to the spine, such as a strain or fracture

● Myofascial pain, or unexplained muscle pain and tenderness 

How does yoga help with back pain?

Johns Hopkins writes that “exercise is the foundation of chronic back pain treatment.” Yoga is an incredibly effective form of exercise for back pain because of its dual physical and psychological effects. The mind-body nature of yoga allows it to address chronic back pain from multiple angles.

Decreased Pain

Multiple studies show that yoga has the potential to reduce chronic low back pain. A 2018 meta-analysis of 28 randomized clinical trials found that mind-body therapies, including yoga, moderately improved pain scores among participants. Another 2018 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found yoga reduced chronic back pain both in the short-term (1 to 6 months) and the long-term (6 to 12 months).

It’s important to note that participants reaped the most benefits when they added yoga to their care. In other words, yoga is not a replacement for physical therapy, medication, or any other treatments your doctor may have prescribed — but it can be a useful adjunct therapy, helping you reap more benefits from these treatments.

Improved Function

Chronic pain can interfere with your ability to function. In this case, “function” is defined as your ability to keep up with everyday activities, such as work, exercise, and housekeeping. When pain prevents you from keeping up with these activities, it can result in a functional disability.

Studies, including the same 2018 report by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, show that practicing yoga may increase function among people with chronic back pain. And a different 2016 study found that yoga was as effective as other non-pharmacological treatments to reduce functional disability in patients with chronic back pain.

Lower Psychological Distress

Because chronic pain can be so disabling, the side effects of living with chronic back pain can include mental health problems, such as increased stress, anxiety, and depression. If you suffer from chronic back pain, you may feel it holds you back from doing the things you love or that your pain isolates you from family and friends.

As a mind-body treatment, yoga can effectively address both the physical and psychological effects of chronic back pain. For example, a 2020 review of 25 randomized clinical trials testing mind-body treatments found that yoga significantly reduced psychological distress — such as depression and anxiety — among patients with chronic back pain.

How to Practice Yoga Safely

While yoga can have powerful benefits for back pain, it can also worsen the problem if performed incorrectly. Follow these guidelines for a safe yoga practice that won’t trigger your chronic back pain:

● Move slowly. People make a common mistake in their yoga practice (or any workout) by pushing themselves too hard, too fast. The goal of yoga is not to force yourself to stretch as far as you can but to find a place that is both comfortable and challenging. Move slowly and make sure to modify or stop any pose that causes pain.

● Use props. Yoga props like block bolster and straps are designed to help people with physical limitations, such as back pain, enjoy the benefits of yoga. Your yoga instructor can guide you on how best to use them in each pose so that you do not injure yourself by misusing them.

● Modify poses. You may feel pressured to keep up with your ultra-flexible neighbor, but yoga class is not a competition. Don’t be afraid to modify challenging poses as needed, especially if they set off your chronic back pain. You may want to let your teacher know before a class of your physical limitation so he or she can help you modify poses appropriately.

How to Find a Certified Yoga Instructor

Finding the right yoga instructor with the proper training is critical to keeping your yoga practice safe and beneficial for back pain. 

An improperly trained yoga instructor may not know how to modify poses or use props properly or have experience working with individuals who have chronic back pain. As such, it’s vital to take a yoga class under an instructor with the right credentials.

The most well-respected certification for yoga teachers is the RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher). Yoga teachers will have either an RYT-200 or RYT-500 after their name. This indication means they have completed training at a Registered Yoga School (RYS) for either 200 or 500 hours. 

If you have chronic back pain, you may prefer to take a yoga class with an instructor who has completed the RYT-500 training rather than the RYT-200. The 500-hour training course goes into greater depth and requires more teaching hours, meaning the teacher may have more experience working with folks who have chronic back pain.

The Three Best Poses for Back Pain

You should always consult a medical professional, such as a doctor or physical therapist, before beginning a yoga program. However, once you are ready to start, you may be wondering what the best poses are for chronic back pain. If you are looking to establish a regular yoga practice with chronic back pain, make sure to include these three fundamental poses in your routine.

  • Cat-Cow Pose

The Cat and Cow poses are classic yoga moves used to warm up the joints before practice and alleviate back pain. These poses have been paired together because they are performed seamlessly, flowing back and forth between the two at your own pace.

To perform Cat-Cow, start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees. (If you have knee problems, fold your yoga mat or use a cushion for additional support.) As you inhale, lift your bottom and shoulders, arching your back upward. Take your gaze upward and slightly behind you. This pose is Cow pose.

On your exhale, push through the tabletop position and drop your bottom and shoulders, rounding your back. Your back should form an upside-down C-shape. This pose is Cat pose. 

Pairing your breath with the movements, flow back and forth between these poses for 5-10 breaths.

  • Seated Twist 

The Seated Twist pose, also known as “Half Lord of the Fishes” in Sanskrit, gently stretches and lengthens the spine through twisting. It can help alleviate low back pain and improve your seated and standing posture.

Begin by sitting in a cross-legged position. Carefully cross your right ankle over your left knee, placing your right foot on the ground and keeping your left knee bent. 

Using your left hand to steady yourself, inhale as you raise your right arm vertically beside your right ear. As you exhale, gently twist toward the left. 

If you can reach, you can tuck your right elbow into the crease of your right knee. Breathe into this pose for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the opposite side.

  • Extended Puppy Pose

Extended Puppy Pose is a modification of Puppy Pose described as a cross between Downward-Facing Dog and Child’s Pose. Not only does this pose lengthen the spine, offering a gentle upper back and shoulder stretch, but it is also incredibly relaxing for the mind.

Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, using additional knee support as necessary. Walk your palms a few inches forward, with your toes curled under. As you exhale, sink your bottom back toward your heels.  

While your arms should remain active in this pose, you can allow your forehead to rest gently on your mat. Press the hands firmly into the ground for a soothing shoulder stretch. Breathe in this pose for 5-10 breaths.

By now, you should have a deeper understanding of how yoga can alleviate chronic back pain and which yoga poses to include in your routine if you suffer from chronic back pain. As always, consult with your doctor before beginning a new exercise regimen — but once you get the okay, don’t be afraid to explore the restorative mind-body practice of yoga!

Disclaimer: The Content is not meant to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek your physician’s advice or other qualified health providers with any questions regarding a medical condition.