Yoga for Back Pain: a Gentle Way to Increase Flexibility and Reduce Pain

Quincy AdamChronic Pain Lifestyle

Woman Meditating On Beach
If you’ve been using medication to relieve back pain but are dissatisfied with the results and/or are concerned about the risks and side effects associated with long term use, you might want to consider yoga.

Yoga’s poses can provide a gentle alternative to medication through strengthening of core muscles that support the spine and stretching to increase flexibility and ease of movement; two things that can help significantly reduce back pain symptoms.

Although yoga practitioners have long touted the benefits of yoga in alleviating back pain, studies are beginning to bear this out. One such example is a study of adults with chronic low back pain compared 12 week classes of yoga to conventional stretching exercises and a self-care book. The yoga participants (as well as the stretching class participants) showed improvement in function as well as reduced pain with benefits that lasted several months.1

In fact, Medical Therapeutic Yoga, the practice of yoga in medicine and rehabilitation, is gaining popularity among those in the medical profession, with several educational organizations offering post-graduate degrees and certifications for medical professionals who wish to incorporate yoga into their medical practice.

But exactly how does yoga help alleviate back pain? While yoga isn’t a good idea for those in acute or severe pain, if you have occasional soreness or chronic aches, you may benefit from certain postures that can help lengthen the spine, and stretch and strengthen muscles. Primarily, yoga helps to:

Loosen Tight Muscles

Tight, inflexible back muscles are unable to properly support and move the spinal column, a factor which contributes to back pain. Yoga can reduce pain through gentle stretching postures known to increase the flexibility of tight muscles. Following a few basic guidelines may increase the effectiveness of your routine.

Since increasing flexibility is a main goal of yoga, counter stretching is important. Bending at the hips to stretch your back downwards should be followed with a gentle bend backwards at your waist, for example. It can be more helpful to move between two basic but opposite stretches than completing a series of more complicated stretches which focus on bending in only one direction.

In a similar manner, both sides of your body need to be stretched as equally as possible. Bending to one side and then immediately to the other helps muscle fibers loosen more easily. If you have a physical condition that prevents certain movements, a good yoga instructor can help you compensate for any physical restrictions safely.

Lubricate and Create More Space between Vertebrae

Because yoga poses help elongate muscle fibers, you may be able to create more space between each spinal vertebra. Many people experience pain relief after only a few stretching sessions, as the lengthening of the muscle fibers seems to open the space needed for each vertebra to move freely.

Additionally, yoga poses distribute the naturally occurring joint lubricant, called synovial fluid, to all locations surrounding each spinal joint, which may provide significant back pain relief.

Always ask your doctor before starting a new fitness regimen, especially if you’re prone to pain. And if you’re new to yoga, it’s also a good idea to start with a program supervised by a qualified yoga instructor who can help you attain poses safely and correctly. Once you get the go-ahead from your physician to start a program, here are a few poses that may help:

The Best Yoga Poses for Back Pain

While there are many yoga poses that are beneficial for your back (and the rest of your body), a few are particularly useful for reduction of back pain.

  • Downward-facing dog: After starting on your hands and knees, raise your rear into the air and end with your legs straight. Leave your hands on the floor and adjust them to provide just the right amount of stretch.
  • Upward-facing dog: Lie flat on your stomach with your hands near your hips. Keeping your legs together on the floor, use your arms to gently push your head upwards and back to create a gentle spinal curve stretch (the opposite to downward dog).
  • Cat and cow poses: Complete these poses on your hands and knees, scooping your back from a convex cat shape down into a concave cow pose as many times as you wish.

While there are other bends that may be good for stretching — like standing forward fold and standing backbend, they are not always recommended for everyone with back issues. Overstretching and twisting can exacerbate problems. Remember, if you feel any pain, it is your body’s way of telling you to stop!

Talk with Your Doctor before You Begin

Before making any lifestyle changes, it’s important to talk with your health care provider. Because yoga is gaining widespread acceptance in its ability to relieve back pain, your doctor may even be able to suggest a good instructor to meet your needs. Slow, gentle changes made in conjunction with your doctor are the key to improving your quality of life with the help of yoga.

1 Sherman KJ, Cherkin DC, Wellman RD, et al. A randomized trial comparing yoga, stretching, and a self-care book for chronic low back pain. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(22):2019-26.