Study: Iyengar Yoga Practice Relieves Chronic Neck Pain

Neck and back pain and how yoga can help

An estimated 20 percent of the population suffers from chronic neck pain, typically caused by structural dysfunctions or disc issues in the cervical spine.

Chronic neck pain can seriously undermine the quality of life and psychological well-being in those who struggle with the condition. Unfortunately, the typical treatment recommended—painkillers in the form of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—has limited effectiveness and may cause side effects like nausea and dizziness.

A new study from Germany indicates that regular yoga practice may offer a viable alternative for those suffering from neck pain. Study participants assigned to weekly Iyengar yoga sessions reported significantly reduced neck pain over a nine-week period.

Importantly, at follow-up 12 months later, the improvement was still present in the study participants who had kept up a regular home practice over the preceding 12 months. Participants in the yoga group reported reduced pain intensity, less disability, better mental quality of life, improved range of motion and proprioceptive acuity, and a higher threshold of pressure pain. The study results from the 9-week study were published in the Clinical Journal of Pain on March 2013, and the results from the 12-month follow-up appeared in Pain Medicine in April 2013.

“Practice time in the past 4 weeks was the only significant predictor of clinically meaningful improvements in pain intensity,” the authors wrote.

Yoga Postures for Neck Pain Relief

The yoga postures used in the 9-week study and in the 12-month follow-up were taught by certified Iyengar yoga teachers. The emphasis on postural alignment and use of props and modifications for safety, the researchers noted, may make Iyengar yoga particularly suitable for the study of effects of yoga on neck pain in beginning practitioners.

Participants received belts, blocks, bolsters and blankets to assist in correct alignment and to prevent injury. They were asked to practice yoga every day and received a manual to assist them in doing three standing postures and three sitting postures.

The standing yoga postures included in the study were Mountain Pose, Standing Half-forward Bend at a wall and Warrior 2, and three sitting postures were Bharadvaja’s twist, Cross-leg pose and Cross-leg pose with a twist. The initial weekly sessions consisted of 75 minutes of postures and 15 minutes of guided relaxation. The poses for this study were designed through personal communication with B.K.S. Iyengar.

The study included the use of props such as sticky mats, belts, blankets, blocks and chairs to support the safety of the yoga practice. The classes were 90 minutes long.

Key to the long-term results were regular yoga practice at home.

“The importance of sustained regular home practice of considerable intensity after the end of the intervention for maintaining intervention effects in the long-term is obvious,” the authors of the 12-month follow-up study noted.

The authors also suggested that as yoga students develop increasing awareness of muscle use and joint position, they can better change habitual posture patterns in daily life.

Those with the most regular practice reported the best results.

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