Stretching therapy eases back pain

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Yoga has long been known to be a great way to relax and get fit. But now a Yorkshire study has found that it is one of the best ways of curing back pain. Catherine Scott reports.

WHEN Sue Faulkner retired four years ago she planned to spend more time gardening.

However, within six months of retiring her back pain was so bad she found that walking any distance was painful and she needed to stop regularly to rest. Gardening was out of the question.

Then she heard about a trial being carried out in York to evaluate the benefit of yoga on back pain.

“I’d done yoga before the 12-week programme but only on and off and not for a long time,” says Sue, from Bishopthorpe in York. “The yoga I had done in the past was mainly in connection with relaxation techniques to help me to cope with stressful situations. I had never thought of doing it for back pain until I saw the request for participants to take part in the programme.

“I felt a definite benefit after the three-month programme as it made me more flexible and we were taught positions to relieve certain types of back pain. I’ve continued going to yoga classes in the village where I live and still do the positions I was taught during the 12-week programme. Walking around is no longer a problem. I do my gardening now and am fine so long as I pace myself. I’ve even taken on an allotment with my daughter and son-in-law and no longer take painkillers.”

And Sue is not alone. The results of the UK’s largest study into the benefits of yoga found it can provide more effective treatment for chronic lower back pain than more conventional methods.

The study, led by the University of York and funded by Arthritis Research UK, found that people offered the specially-designed 12-week programme experienced greater improvements in back function and more confidence in performing everyday tasks than those offered conventional forms of GP care.

The trial involved two groups of people who were both receiving GP care for chronic or recurrent back pain. A 156-strong group was offered yoga classes specially designed to improve back function, while a second control group of 157 people was offered GP care alone.

Chief investigator Professor David Torgerson, director of the trials unit in the university’s department of health sciences, said: “Back pain is an extremely common and costly condition. Exercise treatment, although widely used and recommended, has only a small effect on back pain.

“We therefore set out to investigate an alternative approach using a specially-developed weekly yoga programme for back pain sufferers to see if this allowed them to manage their back pain more successfully.

“While previous studies have focused on the short-term benefits of yoga, we also wanted to see the long-term effects and measured improvements three, six and 12 months after entry into the study.

“Our results showed that yoga can provide both short and long-term benefits to those suffering from chronic or recurrent back pain, without any serious side-effects.”

Medical director of Arthritis Research UK Professor Alan Silman said: “We’re delighted that our trial has shown that yoga provides such positive benefits for people with chronic low back pain. This extremely common condition cannot be managed with painkillers alone and there is an urgent need to have non-drug therapies that sufferers can utilise in their own homes. This trial is part of our larger commitment to seek self-help solutions to this common musculoskeletal problem. There are compelling explanations why yoga may be helpful and this trial lends powerful support to the wider use of this approach.”

Alison Trewhela who designed the programme said: “The yoga programme offers poses for pain-relief and mental calming; mobilising, stretching, strengthening and relaxation; improving awareness of posture; education about how a healthy back functions; and positive mental focus. Yoga aims to treat the whole person – not just the physical.

“As most back pain conditions recur, these lifelong self-management skills are likely to be useful as a preventative measure. As a result of smaller previous trials, one million Americans currently practise yoga as a recommended treatment for low back pain.”


Lower back pain is a common episodic condition, with 80 per cent of the UK population suffering from it at some point in their lives. It is estimated that about 4.9 million working days a year are lost due to back pain. However, few effective, evidence-based treatments exist.The classes were designed for complete beginners, with yoga teachers given extra training in back care. Participants were recruited from 39 general practices in seven primary care trust areas, with classes held in non-NHS premises in Cornwall, North London, West London, Manchester and York.