It was October 12th, 2009 at 6:30 a.m. I was lying on a stretcher in an ambulance on the way to the ER. It was not quite the way I had expected my morning to go (the ambulance driver reminded me this is most often the case for people who end up in an ambulance)!
I had gotten up bright and early and was in the gym by 5:30 a.m. I was doing the workout that I had been doing four times a week for the previous nine months. But this time, when I was done stretching on the floor and tried to stand up, my legs would not hold me. And the pain in my lower back was excruciating.
I had some back pain with both of my pregnancies but nothing like this kind of agony. An MRI revealed that the disc between L5 and S1 had herniated, and I was sent home with lots of pain meds and a directive to rest until I was able to move. Two weeks of almost all bed rest followed. I then slowly began to increase my activity with the help of a physical therapist.
As I read available information on lower back pain, I felt quite discouraged. Chronic low back pain—defined as pain that lasts more than three months—is notoriously difficult to treat. Despite my considerable core muscle strength, I felt as though I was just waiting for another episode of back pain to arrive.
So I was thrilled to read a recent study which was funded by the National Institute of Health. Researchers at West Virginia University enrolled 90 adults with chronic low back pain to participate in a year-long trial comparing the effects of Iyengar yoga therapy with those of standard medical care.
This is the second study to test this specific form of yoga. Iyengar yoga uses props such as blankets, blocks, benches, and belts to help people perform the poses to the fullest extent possible even if they lack experience or have physical limitations. The emphasis is on precise physical alignment, with trained teachers adjusting everything from the position of the shoulders to the angle of the toes.
Compared with the control group, individuals in the Iyengar group at 24 weeks were significantly more functional, experienced a 42% reduction in pain, and a 46% reduction in depressive symptoms. They also used less medication. There were no reports of adverse effects.
Six months after the trial ended, 68% of those in the yoga group were still practicing yoga — on average, three days a week for at least 30 minutes.
The study was small but the results are consistent with findings from other studies of yoga for low back pain.
I was all for trying a treatment that reports no adverse effects. So off I went to sign up for an Iyengar yoga class. I am pleased to report that three months after my injury, I am pain free (without any pain meds at all) and am back to my regular exercise routine three days per week with the addition of my twice-a-week yoga practice.
I am probably also somewhat more flexible, calmer, and more centered. But, for now, my biggest indicator of improvement is my back. And it’s holding up really well!
Sandi Kaplan, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and educator with international experience. She has a graduate degree in education from the University of Sydney in Australia and a master’s degree in nutritional science from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. Sandi is also a certified Solution Method provider and certified wellness coach. She has trained and supervised health professionals nationally as a certified Solution Method trainer.