Back and Neck Pain

How Yoga Can Be Used to Relieve Back Pain

Yoga for Back Pain

Have you tried everything that conventional medicine has to offer for your spinal problem but are still hurting—and as such are looking for an alternative? 

Or perhaps a friend or family member has been urging you to try yoga, saying that it “worked miracles” for their lower back pain. Or you may simply instinctively feel that if you did yoga every day, you could “work out the kinks" that cause the discomfort in your back.

Most likely, you are on the right track with this thinking. But if you suffer from back or neck pain, some preliminary knowledge is in order to help keep your yoga practice safe, productive, and tailored to your specific needs.

For someone who lives with back or neck pain, finding the right yoga class (and participating in it) can be a bit like "swimming with the sharks." You, your teacher and friends, and your fellow yogis may mean well with their suggestions, but unfortunately, this does not guarantee the experience is a good fit for you.

It does not even guarantee that you will be able to do everything safely.

But approaching yoga armed with the information you need to make good decisions may help you avoid doing more harm than good to your neck or back. Learn more below about how to get started with a yoga program designed to heal your back, or at the very least, not hurt it.

Related: How to Start Doing Yoga

Talk to Your Doctor Before Embarking on a Yoga Journey

First things first. If you have a back problem, it's best to get an OK from your doctor or physical therapist before trying yoga. Here are a few things to ask your health provider:

  • Which movement or movements should you avoid?
  • What would be the most productive level of challenge for you, given your condition?
  • Are there any modifications you can try that would help you stay safe and injury-free?
  • What should you know about interactions between the medications you take and exercise?  What precautions should you take?

Generally, it’s not advisable to start a yoga program while you have acute neck or back pain. But once the first phase of healing—characterized by inflammation and pain—is over, some gentle yoga may be valuable.

Choose a Yoga Style

A dizzying array of yoga styles are out there waiting for new customers, with work intensity demands ranging from gentle to very vigorous. Some emphasize spirituality and emotions, while others, most notably Hatha yoga, focus more on physical postures. Still, others emphasize movements that transition between poses. (This is called Vinyasana.)

A Hatha yoga style will likely be a good place to start, particularly the rest and restoration (called "R and R") variety.

Depending on the type of back pain and other medical conditions you have, Yin yoga and/or Somatic yoga may make for good pain management measures. Yin yoga is about holding postures long enough to allow for release of ultra-tight tissue, while Somatic yoga seeks to re-educate your subconscious movement patterns (which describes most of the movement we do every day) as part of the yoga experience. And yes, there is such a thing as Somatic Yin yoga.

On the other hand, it’s probably wise to stay away from aggressive styles of yoga. These include but are not limited to: Kundalini, Ashtanga, and Bikram (“hot”) yoga. These systems are both specialized and challenging, and generally not a good fit for people with spine problems.   

Related: Yoga Gear for Beginners    

Talk to Your Prospective Yoga Teacher

Once you have had a conversation with your health provider, speak with any and all prospective yoga instructors. Try to learn more about their way of working with students with spine conditions, as well as how much experience they have teaching people with medical problems like yours.

Also, you can expect your instructor to be able to respond to your medical limitations with the use of props (special aids) and pose modifications. If they can’t, or they don’t want to hear about/respect what you have to say about what’s happening with your back, chances are you’ll be better off with a different teacher.

As you talk to your prospective yoga teacher, ask about her or his credentials, including how many hours of teacher training they’ve had (500 is better than 200 in general) and any advanced certifications they hold.

You might also inquire about the classes that are right for you in their opinion. And if you have a particular class in mind, find out how challenging it will be.  

Getting the answers to these questions will likely help you make an informed decision about how, where, and with whom to start doing yoga for your pain.

Another thing to ask about is the prospective teacher's policy and style when it comes to manual adjustments. Some instructors are big on these. While adjustments can be helpful in certain situations, if you come to the session with a back injury or other condition, you may need to ask the teacher to refrain in order to avoid aggravating your pain.

By the way, it's a good idea to discuss these issues with the yoga teacher before the class starts to avoid an unwanted surprise.

And finally, unless you are a professional rehabilitation specialist yourself, it is imperative to find a qualified yoga instructor. Do not try to teach yourself!

An In-Depth Look at Yoga for Back Pain

In the fall of 2011, two studies helped our understanding of the way yoga might be used for back pain relief. A three-year British study involving 313 participants and multiple instructors delivered a program to people with chronic back pain. With the exception of general health, the yoga participants fared much better than the control group in all areas (i.e., pain and pain self-efficacy.) 

The other study, done in the United States, compared yoga to an equivalent amount of stretching. The researchers found that for people who have mild to moderate back pain without sciatica, stretching did just as well as yoga.

This second study showed “overall how valuable movement is in the healing process,” said Debbie Turczan, M.S.P.T.  Turczan is a therapeutic yoga teacher and a physical therapist in New York City.

"Yoga teaches us to respect where our bodies are, rather than comparing our current abilities to what we used to be able to do or what someone else can do," she adds.

Yoga for Back Pain Pose Series You Can Try

When doing yoga to increase your back's flexibility, balance is the word. Balance doesn't have to mean an overly challenging workout. It’s more about sequencing and minding your pain/discomfort levels as you practice. For example, it is important to follow up a pose that involves back arching with one that has you bending forward.

Working in balance also helps coordinate overall spinal stability. It may help prevent the predominance of strength in certain muscles over others, which is, in itself, a precursor to back injury. Check out this yoga for spinal flexibility series.

If a quick yoga refresher at work is what you need, check out the yoga sun salutation your back will love.  It's a gentle yet effective sequence for squeezing and stretching the tension out of your back muscles.

Related: Yoga Tips for Spinal Arthritis

Yoga for back pain is becoming increasingly popular. For many, doing yoga cultivates a balance between the flexibility and strength of the muscles of the body, often the real culprit in pain, movement limitation, and disability.

In fact, a meta-analysis published in the September-October 2013 issue of Pain Research Management suggests that yoga may make a good adjunct treatment for chronic back pain.

And yoga's breathing techniques may help relieve your stress as well as get through challenging stretches. The spiritual emphasis in certain types of yoga classes may provide an opportunity to work more deeply on healing and pain resolution.

Sources:

Holtzman S, Beggs T. Yoga for chronic low back pain: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Pain Res Manag. Sept-Oct. 2013 Accessed: Feb 2016.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805350/

Sherman KJ, Cherkin DC, Erro J, Miglioretti DL, Deyo RA. Comparison of Yoga, Exercise, and Education for the Treatment of Chronic Low Back Pain. Annals of Internal Medicine Vol 143 Issue 12 pp1-18. Dec 20 2005. http://www.annals.org/cgi/content/full/143/12/I-18

Sherman KJ, Cherkin DC, Wellman RD, Cook AJ, Hawkes RJ, Delaney K, Deyo RA. A Randomized Trial Comparing Yoga, Stretching, and a Self-care Book for Chronic Low Back Pain. Arch Intern Med. 2011 Oct 24. [Epub ahead of print]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Sherman KJ, Cherkin DC, Wellman RD, et al. A randomized trial comparing yoga,

Tilbrook HE, Cox H, Hewitt CE, Kang'ombe AR, Chuang LH, Jayakody S, Aplin JD, Semlyen A, Trewhela A, Watt I, Torgerson DJ . Yoga for chronic low back pain: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2011 Nov 1;155(9):569-78. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22041945

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