Departments Well Being — 03 February 2012
Yoga and Pain Relief



If you are among the millions of Americans who suffer from low back pain, you may think that twisting and stretching your spine in a yoga class is the last thing that would make it feel better.

But it really can help, and you can start at any age.

Two studies published in late October in the Annals of Internal Medicine are just the most recent research to show yoga’s benefits, says Dr. Ashwin Mehta, a certified yoga instructor and medical director of the integrative medicine program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Mehta says yoga may help relieve pain in a combination of ways.

“Whether it’s a direct effect of actually strengthening the tendons, ligaments and muscles that keep us in proper alignment, or whether it’s a peripheral effect, the jury’s still out,” he says.

“The most notable part of the yoga practice is the mindfulness. It enlists the mind as an ally in the process of health and healing and is very beneficial in responding to any health challenge,” Mehta says.

He recommends getting a doctor’s OK before beginning yoga.

“If there’s any instability in the spinal column, then I think yoga would be contraindicated,” he says. “I would never recommend it for anybody with severe herniation.”

Susie Higgins, yoga instructor at Holy Cross Hospital’s Zachariah Family Wellness Pavilion in Fort Lauderdale, suggests finding an instructor who can modify the yoga practice to fit your physical limitations.

“Not all teachers are created equal, so it’s very important that you find a teacher who can make adjustments,” Higgins says. She recommends hatha yoga, because it strengthens the body and stresses proper alignment of the spine.

Many of the people she teaches at Holy Cross are older, but she says people can begin yoga at any age.

“If I have to put someone in a chair because they can’t get down on the floor, then that’s what I do to get them started,” she says.

She also uses breathing techniques – pranayama – as another way of easing pain.

“I am a cancer survivor a little over a year now, so I knew the benefits. The pranayama – breathing through the pain – keeps me centered,” Higgins says.

“I’ve also had lower back pain after being hit by a car on my bicycle twice. I know if I have pain, if I do a gentle [yoga] practice, that’s what’s going to get me out of that cycle.”

Higgins says people who are in pain may also have depression, and yoga is a way of working on both issues at once.

“Doing yoga produces endorphins, which helps with the pain and the depression,” she says.

About 80 percent of Americans experience low back pain during their lives, and 15 to 20 percent have it for protracted periods, according to the National Institutes of Health. As many as 8 percent have chronic low back pain, meaning it continues more than three months.

Americans spend close to $50 billion a year on treatments from pain killers to surgical interventions, according to the NIH, and it is second only to the common cold as a cause of missing work.

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