The health care world is recognizing the importance of treating patients with a “biopsychosocial” approach.  This is using medical terminology to describe considering someone’s body (bio), mind (psycho) and social life (social) while treating medical conditions. A wide variety of conditions such as high blood pressure as well as painful conditions such as low back pain can benefit from this approach. There is a well known link between states of mind (such as anxiety or depression) and an experience of chronic pain. Long term management of conditions such as chronic low back pain likely benefit from treatment of both the physical aspects of the condition (such as yoga asana) as well as assist in reducing states of mind which lead to an increased experience of pain.  One of the main benefits of yoga is that it addresses both the body and the mind, often in the same moment!
An article written for the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine illustrates the link between pain, anxiety and/or depression in people with chronic low back pain, and compares yoga and physical therapy interventions.   80 individuals with elevated scores of stress and anxiety were randomly assigned to either yoga or “traditional physical therapy” group in a week long residential program. The yoga group participated in a well rounded program which included yoga asana (postures), chanting, meditation, pranayama (breathing techniques), and education on yoga philosophy.  The “physical therapy” group participated in traditional physical therapy exercises, “non-yogic breathing practices”, lectures about stress and pain, and watching nature videos to promote relaxation. The study found that the yoga group helped reduce anxiety and depression in both groups, however, the yoga group experienced a reduction of around 40{2bd103ee3922297dd26721aa2b4723f52b7c1e46e10078a5bb1f7638d0cbcf8c} vs. around 18{2bd103ee3922297dd26721aa2b4723f52b7c1e46e10078a5bb1f7638d0cbcf8c} in the “physical therapy” group.
Of course, every study has its limitations. It’s difficult to blind participants in yoga and physical therapy as to the treatments that are being provided and can lead to some bias. This study could have done a better job at describing the physical therapy interventions.  However, this study illustrates that yoga as a practice for both body and mind can help address the underlying causes and complications we all experience with an episode of long term pain, leading to improved health and wellbeing. The next time your back pain acts up consider how treating the mind with yogic based nervous system calming activities can be just as important as physical exercise.
– Michelle Downing DPT, RYT
P.Tekur, R. Nagarathna, S. Chametcha, Alex Hankey, H.R. Nagendra. A comprehensive yoga programs improves pain, anxiety and depression in chronic low back pain patients more than exercise: An RCT. Complement Ther Med. 2012 Jun;20(3):107-18. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2011.12.009. Epub 2012 Jan 28.

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