Yoga Gets Nod as Alternative Treatment for Back Pain

If you’ve ever had an episode of acute back pain, you know that it can be one of the most excruciating experiences there is. The temptation is to rush to the doctor and get MRI and X-rays, strong prescription painkillers, and even surgery.

But not so fast. According to a new article in Consumer Reports, when it comes to back pain, less is usually more. And alternative treatments, like yoga for back pain, is likely to be your best option.

Nine out of ten people who see a doctor within the first three days of a back pain attack begin to feel better within two weeks, irrespective of what they do. In fact, being too aggressive with treatments or tests will not only waste your money, it could slow recovery. According to Consumer Reports, here are four mistakes to avoid:

Mistake 1: Doing too many tests early on

It’s easy to think that if you do a lot of tests, like X-ray, CT scan, or MRI, that you’re doing something about the problem and will get to the bottom of what’s causing the pain. Unfortunately, many scans show minor abnormalities that may not have anything to do with the issue causing the back pain. Degenerative disc disease, for example, is extremely common in people over 50, and may never cause any pain issues or problems at all. But once spinal abnormalities show up on a scan, doctors are often prompted to pursue more aggressive care.

What To Do: Always check with your doctor, but to avoid getting treated for a spine abnormality that has nothing to do with the source of the pain, take a wait and see attitude. Generally speaking, the time to get tests is if the pain doesn’t respond to self-help methods in a month, or if you experience leg weakness, pain radiating from the buttock to a leg, or if you have a history of cancer, and unexplained weight loss.

Mistake 2: Staying in bed

Probably the last thing you want to do when you have back pain is moving around, but staying in bed can actually be the worst thing you do. A  2010 review found that patients advised to stay active reported less back pain pain and a faster recovery. Nowadays, guidelines for doctors is to urge patients to resume normal activities as soon as possible and caution against staying in bed for longer than four days.

What To Do: Try low-impact activities such as stretching and walking. Eventually, you’ll want to work with a physical therapist or other professional that can offer exercises that strengthen your abdomen, back, and legs, which can help prevent a recurrence of the back pain.

Also consider alternative treatments, like osteopathy, chiropractic, massage, or acupuncture. Or, work with a yoga therapist to try a very gentle form of yoga, such as Viniyoga, which combines breathing techniques with simple yoga postures, and which has been used as the protocol for several studies on the effects of yoga for back pain.

Mistake 3: Taking strong drugs

Painkillers containing opiates may provide great short-term relief, but because of their addictive qualities, they can turn a short-term pain issue into a long-term battle with addiction. Just as bad, according to Consumer Reports, people who take strong drugs containing oxycodone (found in OxyContin and Percocet) or hydrocodone (found in Lortab and Vicodin) experience more disability after six months compared with people who don’t take drugs.

Even steroid injections may provide questionable relief. They can provide short-term relief for back pain with sciatica pain (shooting pain down the leg from a pinched nerve), but effects wear off after three months. For other back pain issues, they have no proven record of relief.

What to Do: Consumer Reports recommends sticking with generic versions of over-the-counter ibuprofen or naproxen. Those drugs have downsides too, as they can cause cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems. So if you have heart disease, stomach ulcers, or gastritis, stick with generic acetaminophen or consider a prescription muscle relaxant, such as generic cyclobenzaprine. Of course, always consult with your doctor to get the proper diagnosis

Mistake 4: Jumping into surgery

It’s easy to think that the most drastic solution is the most effective, but surgery is not a sure cure for back pain. For the most part back pain originates from issues that cannot be addressed with surgery, such as arthritis, poor posture, and muscle imbalances. Even when the pain is caused by conditions that can be addressed with surgery, such as a herniated disk or spinal stenosis, these conditions can often be addressed with conservative treatment.

What to Do: Try the slow route, using conservative and alternative treatments under your doctor’s guidance. If you and your doctor eventually decide that you need surgery, at least you will know that you have tried all other options and are not rushing into an aggressive treatment that could have been avoided.

Recent articles


Upcoming courses

Yoga for
every body

How to Avoid the Top 3 Pitfalls of Forward Bends

With Julie Gudmedstad

Recent articles


Sorry, You have reached your
monthly limit of views

To access, join us for a free 7-day membership trial to support expanding the Pose Library resources to the yoga community.

Sign up for a FREE 7-day trial