How You Can Ease Lower Back Pain with Yoga and Tai Chi

  • Researchers say mind-body exercise routines such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong can help ease lower back pain.
  • Experts say these exercises can strengthen the body as well as the mind.
  • They note that the cause of a lot of lower back pain is unknown and the effectiveness of treatment can vary from person to person.

Dr. Nick Shamie spends a lot of time hunched over.

The chief of orthopedic spine surgery at UCLA says those hours he spent craning his neck to operate on patients were giving him grief.

Two decades ago, he found a solution: yoga.

“I had some neck pain from all the long hours of leaning over the patient when I’m operating and I saw that in my case yoga was very helpful because there are parts of yoga where you actually exercise your neck also, and that helped me as a form of exercise to maintain my spine health. Yoga is my primary form of exercise these days,” he told Healthline.

Many of Shamie’s patients have back pain, and they’re not alone.

About 80 percent of adults in the United States experience pain in the lower back at some point.

Now, a review by researchers at Florida Atlantic University has concluded that movement-based mind-body exercises such as tai chi and yoga are effective at treating lower back pain.

“The bad news is back pain is very common, and we’re all affected by this at times debilitating problem. So anything we can do to prevent this back pain is worthwhile, and that’s what this study is highlighting,” Shamie said.

“People think that yoga is just you sitting there and singing ‘om’ cross-legged,” he added. “But yoga… has modernized and transformed into not just yoga maneuvers but an aerobic exercise.”

What researchers found

People with lower back pain are often encouraged to initially try nonpharmacological treatments, such as exercise, to manage their pain.

The Florida researchers evaluated the efficacy of three such mind-body exercises: yoga, tai chi (which involves gentle physical exercises and stretches together with mindfulness), and qigong (a Chinese meditation therapy that’s centered on body awareness during slow and repetitive body movements).

“Back pain is a major public health issue often contributing to emotional distress such as depression and anxiety, as well as sleep issues and even social isolation,” JuYoung Park, PhD, a corresponding study author and an associate professor in the Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work at the Florida university, said in a press release.

“We reviewed data to determine the effects of movement-based mind-body interventions on chronic back pain, psychological factors, coping strategies, and quality of life in people suffering with back pain,” Park added.

The researchers found that mind-body exercises such as yoga and tai chi were effective at reducing pain in the lower back, reducing pain-related disability, improving functional ability, and reducing depression and anxiety.

“Yoga, tai chi, and qi gong could be used as effective treatment alternatives to pain medications, surgery, or injection-based treatments such as nerve blocks, which are associated with high incidence of adverse effects in treating lower back pain,” Park said.

How yoga, tai chi work

Dr. Pamela Peeke, MPH, FACP, FACSM, is a fitness expert and national spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine who practices both yoga and a form of tai chi.

“In my opinion, yoga and tai chi are highly beneficial to a large population of people with back pain,” she told Healthline. “Of course, first always have a credible medical professional perform an assessment to rule out any problem that may be critical… start slowly with some form of recovery yoga, and then gradually increase the intensity. The same is true for tai chi.”

As well as strengthening the body, Peeke says mind-body exercises such as yoga and tai chi have the added benefit of strengthening the mind.

“The mind-body are one entity. As the back goes, so goes the mind. People in chronic pain are filled with angst, anxiety, fear, and often depression,” she added. “Mind-body movement experiences like yoga and tai chi are excellent to address both issues.”

The impacts of back pain

Over the past few decades, the prevalence of lower back pain in the United States has worsened.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a 1990 study ranking the most burdensome conditions in the United States placed lower back pain in sixth place. By 2010, lower back pain had jumped to third place.

Lower back pain is a leading cause of missed workdays and the most common cause of job-related disability.

“In addition to the pain itself, the impact on quality of life can be profound,” Gary Donaldson, PhD, director of the Pain Research Center at the University of Utah, told Healthline. “Chronic pain may limit the ability to work, to get around, to interact socially, and generally to enjoy a rich, engaged life. The personal financial cost may become daunting, with increased medical expenses, lost work, and possible hospitalization.”

Finding a treatment

Reasons behind lower back pain are numerous, and Donaldson says in the case of chronic lower back pain, the cause is often unknown.

Treatment options are similarly complex.

“There is no single best treatment for chronic low back pain,” he said. “Even if a definite anatomical problem can be repaired surgically, recovery is complicated, and proper exercise can help. Analgesics, particularly non-opioid analgesics that also reduce inflammation are also helpful.”

“Managing lower back pain well requires careful consideration of an individual’s circumstances and close consultation with trusted healthcare providers,” Donaldson added. “Individual responses to the exact same therapies are vastly different, so generalities that treatments can be effective are not all that helpful. The hard part is figuring out what works for whom, and how well.”

All of the experts who spoke with Healthline say that the best way to avoid lower back pain in the first place, as well as manage it, is to do some form of exercise.

“An ounce of prevention is worth its weight in gold. Once the patient becomes a candidate for an injection or surgery… if I were to generalize… maybe it’s too late to repair yourself with yoga,” Shamie said.

“You can slow down the progression of the degenerative process we’re all going through by doing exercises like yoga, tai chi, jogging, or going to the gym, which all have benefits,” he said.

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