In this Arthritis Research UK-funded trial
313 patients with chronic or recurrent low back pain were randomised to either a 12-week programme of yoga exercises specially designed to improve back function or 'usual GP care'. 1
In addition to the exercises the yoga group received educational input about healthy back function and maintaining a 'positive mental focus'. The subjects were assessed at 3, 6 and 12 months after entering the study using the Roland–Morris Disability Questionnaire.
At 3 months the yoga group demonstrated a 30% improvement in back function, which included things such as walking speed, tolerance of standing and ability to dress unaided. The benefits declined a little over time but were still significant at 12 months. Very small numbers of patients reported increased pain that may have been related to their yoga practice but this does not appear to have been evaluated.
Perhaps the most important feature was that subjects were taught and encouraged to become self-sufficient in their yoga routines and reported finding the exercises useful when their back pain recurred. As with many complex interventions, we cannot know which components of their yoga experience were the most effective – the group therapy, the education, the positive mental focus or the exercises.
And we must remember, before advising all our back pain patients to join the nearest yoga class, that the exercises in this trial were specifically designed for patients with back pain and that the teachers also received educational input on back pain. This may be quite different from your local teacher who may not have been trained in this specialist area.