There are many possible reasons your back is hurting you right now. And there are many possible treatments you might explore to get rid of the pain. In nearly every case, the best solution is non-invasive, involves no medications and costs little or nothing – exercise. And two particular types, yoga and stretching, are most likely to get positive results.
Pain causes muscles to get tight, and tight muscles cause even more pain in a never-ending cycle. Stretching helps to lengthen and relax tissues that have become contracted as a protective mechanism. With just a little movement, you’ll find yourself able to tolerate more than you thought. Physical activity gets blood flowing, and circulation is necessary for any kind of healing.
Yoga is often recommended; in some cases, even prescribed. And there are good reasons for doing so. Yoga poses are designed to make you more aware of your body and to understand its limitations as well as its potential.
When yoga is practiced properly on a regular basis, the result is improved posture and balance with head, shoulders, spine and pelvis in proper alignment.
Yoga hardly qualifies as pumping iron, but it is nevertheless an effective way to strengthen muscles, particularly the core body muscles that are essential to a healthy spine.
The yoga practice of holding a position for an extended time is not meant to cause discomfort. But it does require strong concentration and awareness of specific muscles and muscle groups.
The most important physical benefits of yoga, according to most experts, come from the stretching. Holding a gentle pose for 10 to 60 seconds requires flexing one muscle while relaxing its opposing muscle. The goal is balanced muscle tension, relaxation and increased flexibility.
In many cases, tension and tightness, particularly in the hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh, are enough by themselves to bring on pain. But even when the initial pain resulted from severe trauma to the spine or a herniated disc, muscles seize up and contribute to a continuing pain cycle.
Most yoga teachers, of course, will stress the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits. It’s a state of mind that encourages meditation, balance and harmony. Deep, free and rhythmic breathing relaxes the body and encourages circulation, reducing stress and the perception of pain.
Negative emotions and high levels of stress can be either a cause or an effect of chronic pain. In either case, deep breathing, relaxation and stress reduction can go a long way toward reducing the perception of pain.
At least 10 published studies have confirmed the benefits of yoga as effective back pain therapy. The largest to date, a British study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine [November 1, 2011], followed 313 adults with chronic or recurring low back pain for a year.
After three months, subjects taking the yoga classes had better back function and more confidence performing every day activities than subjects in the control group, even though they had no significant reduction of pain. Subjects were not required to continue the yoga classes, but about two thirds did. And improved back function was reported at six months, nine months and a year after the end of the study period.
A U.S. study published a week earlier [October 24, 2011, Annals of Internal Medicine] included 228 mentally healthy adults, most of whom had remained fairly active despite their moderate back pain. One third of the subjects took weekly yoga classes; another third took weekly stretching and strengthening classes; and a control group was given a book on coping with back pain.
At the end of three months, both the yoga and stretching groups showed greater improvement of their back pain. Considering the mental and spiritual components of yoga, the researchers were surprised that those in the stretching and strengthening group had comparable benefits.
Both the yoga and stretching classes focused specifically on the muscle groups of the back and legs. Both stretching and yoga require an active effort on the part of the patient. And this effort pays off by reducing the need for medication or surgery. These studies confirm what doctors already knew: it’s important not to become dependent on pain killers nor to rush too quickly into any invasive treatment.