Got back pain? Try British Wheel of Yoga or Iyenga yoga
Full version available from: http://www.arthritisresearchuk.org/arthritis-information/arthritis-today-magazine/155-winter-2012/yoga-trial.aspx
The UK’s largest-ever study into the benefits of yoga for low back pain has proved what yoga practitioners have known anecdotally for years: that specialist yoga works. Jane Tadman reports on the outcome of Arthritis Research UK’s multi-centre yoga trial.
People who practise yoga have known instinctively for a long time that it helps with improving their posture, reduces stiffness and makes them more able to cope with the stress of everyday life.
Many yoga teachers have been aware that the ancient practice can also help manage a range of musculoskeletal conditions, hence the availability, in some places, of ‘therapeutic’ yoga classes for people with low back pain, for example. But there was little scientific proof.
In 2007 Arthritis Research UK began a collaboration with the University of York and a number of experienced yoga teachers.
The trial involved two groups of people who were both receiving GP care for chronic or recurrent back pain. A 156-strong group were offered group yoga classes specially designed to improve back function, while a second control group of 157 people were offered GP care alone.
Postures were specially devised from two of the most popular types of yoga, Iyengar and British Wheel of Yoga.
The results of the study, published towards the end of 2011 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, showed that yoga can indeed provide more effective treatment for chronic low back pain than the usual care provided by GPs. There was a 30 per cent difference at three months between the two groups, favouring those offered yoga, in people’s ability to do a range of everyday tasks.
Specifically, people offered the specially designed 12-week yoga programme experienced greater improvement in back ‘function’ and had more confidence in performing everyday tasks than those offered the usual forms of GP care. Function means people’s ability to undertake activities without being limited by back pain.
Although improvements in back function were more pronounced at three months, there was still an improvement in people’s ability to walk more quickly, get dressed without help or stand up for longer periods of time even nine months after the classes had finished.
“When I feel a twinge and my back starts to stiffen, I know what to do,” says Neil Tarbitt, a 39-year-old IT manager, who had intermittent back pain for years.
“Yoga has quite a subtle effect. My back has been much better since taking part as it taught me two or three useful stretching exercises which really help loosen up my back. As I do the exercises I can feel my back loosening and stretching, and then when I wake up the next day, I feel a lot better again.”
Kevin Hall, aged 51, who has taken up sea canoeing since his chronic back pain eased, concurs. “In the past I would be out of action for two or three months if my back went, but that doesn’t happen now as I know how to prevent episodes with focused exercises,” he says. “I’m also not as reliant on painkillers as I used to be. …..“I learnt quite a few exercises that I could use during the working day, whether I’m sitting in a meeting or on a bus. It taught me to look after my body better and to look out for the trigger points. For me, yoga was a helpful stepping stone to recovery.”
The yoga programme, which involved 20 experienced yoga teachers, was designed and delivered by Iyengar yoga teacher Alison Trewhela, in collaboration with Anna Semlyen, a British Wheel of Yoga teacher. The classes were designed for complete beginners, with yoga teachers given extra training in back care. Classes were held in Cornwall, London, York and Manchester. Those attending the specially-designed programme, which involved step-by-step gentle classes, were encouraged to become self-sufficient in the long-term. Classes were supported with four home practice sheets, a manual, and a four-track audio CD teaching how to relax physically and mentally.
Even those trial participants who haven’t maintained regular practice feel they have benefited in the long-term. Fifty-two-year-old Paul Jenkins hasn’t practised yoga since the course ended but says the legacy is a new-found respect for his back and much more awareness of his posture.
“I really loved the yoga course and found the exercises very energising. It was also an opportunity to be calm; relaxing in a structured way was a real joy,” he says.
The Yoga for Healthy Lower Backs book and copies of the trial’s special relaxation CD are both available, and some of the royalties go to Arthritis Research UK.
The trial’s yoga experts have set up www.yogaforbacks.co.uk about their research-proven back care courses and resources with a list of qualified teachers. They are advising people to find a yoga teacher, as learning from a specially trained teachers will maximise the healing gained from the back care sequences.
» Eighty per cent of the UK population suffers from lower back pain at some point in their lives. Few effective, evidence-based treatments exist.
» The results have delighted Arthritis Research UK’s medical director Professor Alan Silman, as the charity is committed to funding studies of non-conventional therapies. “There are compelling explanations why yoga may be helpful and this trial lends powerful support to the wider use of this approach,” he said.