Can yoga relieve the pain and disability associated with low back pain?

The Bottom Line

  • Low back pain is a prevalent medical condition for adults in industrialized countries and places a significant burden on healthcare systems.
  • While medications for chronic back pain sufferers are often prescribed, those seeking a more natural, holistic solution have turned to yoga for relief of pain and disability.
  • Studies have concluded that yoga is effective in reducing back pain and related disability, particularly in the short term.

Low back pain is a distressing but common health condition: more than 80 per cent of the population in industrialized societies will experience at least some level of low back pain during their lifetime.1 It interferes with daily activities, is a major contributor to workplace absenteeism, and is one of the top reasons that people seek medical care.2

The majority of people afflicted by acute (short-term) low back pain recover relatively quickly without requiring specific treatment. But for some of these patients, the pain becomes severe and chronic, negatively affecting their mobility, mood and general quality of life.1

While chronic back pain sufferers are often prescribed medications, many people are wary of taking drugs for long periods of time, or are unable to take certain medications due to their side effects, and seek complementary – or alternate - therapies.3 One such therapy is the ancient Indian practice of yoga, which involves physical exercise, relaxation and lifestyle modification.4

A recent, well-done systematic review of 10 randomized controlled trials involving 967 chronic back pain patients,5 showed strong evidence that practising yoga does in fact relieve the pain and disability associated with low back pain, particularly in the short term (approximately three months). In the longer term – about a year – more moderate improvements were realized.

Yoga is not associated with any serious adverse effects, and in fact, the stretching and physical postures (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (dyana)6 are widely believed to promote vitality, health and well-being for people of all ages. For those experiencing chronic low back pain, yoga can be confidently recommended either as an alternative therapy or in addition to medication.

So if you are dogged by chronic back pain, a few ‘downward dogs’ just might provide some welcome relief!

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Author Details


  1. Patrick N, Emanski E, Knaub MA. Acute and chronic low back pain. Med Clin North Am. 2014;98:777-789.
  2. Henschke N, Ostelo RWJG, van Tulder MW, et al. Behavioural treatment for chronic low-back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;7:CD002014.
  3. Furlan A, Yazdi F, Tsertsvadze A, et al. Complementary and alternative therapies for back pain II. Evid Rep Technol Assess (Full Rep). 2010;194:1-764.
  4. Holtzman S, Beggs RT. Yoga for chronic low back pain: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Pain Res Manag. 2013;18:267-72.
  5. Cramer H, Lauche R, Haller H, et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of yoga for low back pain. Clin J Pain. 2013;29:450-60. [Associated Evidence Summary here.]
  6. Feuerstein G. The Yoga Tradition. Prescott: Hohm Press;1998.

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