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The finding comes on the heels of similar results from a U.S. investigation published last week by University of Washington researchers in the Archives of Internal Medicine. That study found that sufferers of chronic lower back pain could get pain relief by participating in either instructor-led yoga classes or stretching classes.
Although last week's study focused on the relief of back pain, as opposed to the improvement of back function, both of the new studies found yoga classes worked better compared to people simply trying to help themselves with a self-help book on easing back pain.
"Our results showed that yoga can provide both short- and long-term benefits to those suffering from chronic or recurrent back pain, without any serious side effects," said study lead author Helen E. Tilbrook, of the University of York's department of health sciences in Heslington, England.
Tilbrook and her team published their findings in the Nov. 1 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The researchers noted that chronic or recurrent back pain is one of the most common ailments driving people to seek health care.
To assess what role yoga might play in alleviating back pain, between 2007 and 2010 the team focused on the experience of just over 300 British back pain patients, most of whom were middle-aged women.
By the time of the study launch, the participants had endured an average 10 years of back pain, the authors noted.
Throughout the study all the participants continued their previous back pain standard of care (which can include medication, massage therapy and chiropractic treatment), supplemented by the distribution of a back pain education booklet.
However, roughly half the participants were also offered a three-month, 12-session yoga course led by experienced teachers.
No more than 15 students were enrolled in any one class, which were based on the "asana" and "pranayama" forms of yoga, and included a range of relaxation and mental focus techniques.
The result: disability and pain questionnaires completed at the end of the yoga program, as well as three and six months thereafter, revealed that those who had taken yoga classes reported better back function at every juncture, compared with the non-yoga group.
The biggest boost in back function among the yoga group was observed immediately following the conclusion of classes.
Back pain and general health, however, was no better among the yoga group than the non-yoga group, the team observed. That said, yoga participants expressed a greater confidence than those in the non-yoga group in their ability to perform normal activities both at the conclusion of yoga classes and three months after.
Tilbrook's team concluded that yoga appeared to offer back pain patients a better shot at improving back function than the usual course of back pain treatment.
Karen Sherman, the lead author of the back pain study published last week, believes the two new studies provide "better evidence that yoga is worth trying for patients with non-specific low back pain."
"Persons with 'non-specific' chronic low back pain don't have a lot of conventional medical options that have been shown to be helpful," noted Sherman, who is associate professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Washington, Seattle. "So, they commonly turn to various alternative therapies for relief," she explained.
"Prior to the publication of our recent study and the U.K. trial, there were less than 10 smallish studies suggesting that yoga might be a viable treatment option for persons with chronic low back pain," Sherman continued. "Our studies are larger and more robust than previous studies."
And while Sherman pointed to some differences in the way the two investigations were designed, both came to the same conclusion: "That yoga improves function among back pain patients," she said.
"So, I think the bottom line is that yoga is a viable treatment option," said Sherman, "and one that physicians and other clinicians should feel comfortable recommending to patients, especially if they have more mild or moderate back pain that limits their abilities to perform various activities that are a normal part of life for them."
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