Back pain is very common in modern life today. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, around 80 percent of adults experience back pain at some point in their lives. The pain can be acute (lasting four to 12 weeks) or chronic. Chronic back pain affects around 20 percent of people that suffer from acute back pain. This indicates that percentage is not treating their back pain properly, leading to further pain; or chronic back pain. This number does not include those with mechanical problems or medical conditions who may suffer back pain for long periods of time, or maybe even permanently. The good news is there are natural ways to help ease the pain and keep it under control, like yoga. Yoga has been proven to be a great aid in relieving back pain. Not only by stretching and strengthening the back muscles and spine, but also the core.
Having a strong core is essential in managing back pain, as it the center of the body that supports your entire spine. Core strengthening will not only take the pressure off of your back but will also help with proper spinal alignment, which is another cause of back pain. Yoga for back pain will strengthen your core, straighten your posture, build core muscles and stretch your spine. This means that it will help people with back pain to cope better on a day to day basis. In some cases, it may even completely cure back pain.
What Can Cause Back Pain?
The back is made up of muscles, tendons, ligaments, discs, and bones. Back pain can be caused by a problem with any one of these components, or in combination. In fact, there are so many things that can cause back pain. In general, they are broken down into three categories; mechanical problems, medical conditions, and strain.
Most chronic back pain is caused by mechanical problems. These are the most common:
- Degenerated Disc – This is a very common cause of back pain. Discs are like shock absorbers between the bones in your spine. When they deteriorate, it means that the cushioning between the vertebrae is reduced, making it more difficult to move around. This causes back pain. This happens due to everyday wear-and-tear and is more common in the aging population.
- Ruptured or Herniated Disc – this occurs when there is a tear or rupture of some kind in an intervertebral disc. When this occurs, the inner protective layer of the disc leaks into the spinal cord. This causes compression and an outward bulge, causing back pain.
- Sciatica – is often related to a herniated disc where there is compression on the sciatic nerve. This is a large nerve that travels from your lower back through the buttocks and down the back of your leg. When it flares, it can cause an electric-like pain that shoots down through the lower back, buttocks, and leg. Sciatica can also sometimes be caused by a tumor or cyst that is putting pressure on the sciatic nerve.
- Radiculopathy – this occurs when there is compression, inflammation or an injury to the spinal nerve root. The added pressure that is put on the nerve root causes pain, numbness and a tingling sensation. This sensation will radiate to other parts of the body including the legs, shoulders, arms, and neck.
- Traumatic injuries – including car accidents, sports injuries, tendon injuries or fractures. Traumatic injuries can cause the spine to be overly compressed, which can then cause a ruptured or herniated disc, or pressure on the nerve roots and spinal cord.
There are medical conditions that can cause back pain. Here are a few of the common ones:
- Scoliosis – when there is a sideways curve in the spine, which mostly occurs during a growing spurt just before puberty. It usually does not cause back pain until middle age.
- Spinal stenosis – this happens when there is a narrowing in the spinal canal that puts pressure on the spinal cord or the nerve roots. It can cause back pain, or in more severe cases, numbness.
- Spondylolisthesis – this is when a bone in the lower vertebrae slips out of place and into the bone below it. It can be extremely painful, specifically in the lower back, and can be caused by a sports injury or by consistently putting too much strain on the back.
- Arthritis – this occurs when there is inflammation in your joints. It worsens with age and is a common cause of back pain.
- Kidney stones – when kidney stones pass through the kidney into the urethra is can cause severe back pain.
- Endometriosis – the uterine tissue that builds up outside of the uterus can put pressure on your spine or sciatic nerve.
- Infections – although it is not common, it is possible to get an infection in the spine that will cause back pain. Pelvic inflammatory disease, kidney infections, and bladder infections can also sometimes cause back pain.
- Fibromyalgia – this is a chronic pain condition that also causes fatigue.
This is everyday activities that cause regular wear and tear on the body, causing back pain. It is conditional pain that is predominately acute, though it can become chronic if left without treatment. Here are a few examples:
- Sprains and strains – caused by pulling a muscle, popping a tendon out of place or tearing a ligament. This can happen by twisting incorrectly, heavy lifting or over-stretching, amongst other things.
- Weight – putting on too much weight or being obese can put extra pressure on your spine and cause back pain.
- Heavy backpack or handbag – having too many heavy items in a backpack or handbag can cause not only back pain but also shoulder pain and the possibility of future posture problems.
- Sitting too long – this could be at a desk or in a car. Back pain can occur if you have bad posture and are hunched over a lot.
- Pregnancy – back pain is common during pregnancy, as pelvic changes and weight changes put pressure on the lower back.
How Does Yoga Help with Back Pain?
Doing exercise daily is a sure way to rehabilitate the spine and help alleviate back pain, especially when done in a controlled manner. The very essence of yoga is to move in a controlled way, moving to your breath and learning how to be mindful of your body. In fact, the Annals of Internal Medicine have stated that the American College of Physicians recommends yoga as a natural, nonpharmacological way to treat back pain. Plus, not only is it effective, but it also works faster than many of the other options that are available. A study that was published by the Annals of Internal Medicine proves this. The study was conducted over a 12 month period with over 300 participants who complained of lower back pain. Half of the participants did yoga to help alleviate chronic lower back pain, while the other half had usual care. The yoga group not only had less pain but also had a better back function when tested at three, six and twelve-month intervals.
The Department of Radiology at Cathay General Hospital in Taipei, Taiwan conducted a study on the effects of yoga disc degenerative disease to see whether or not yoga was beneficial to the spine. They compared degenerative disc disease in 18 yoga teachers that had been teaching for over 10 years to 18 participants who did not practice yoga at all. The comparisons were done through the use of MRIs, which showed that there was significantly less degenerative disc disease in the yoga teachers than in the non-yoga group.
Another study was conducted by three professors in Taiwan, proving that core strength training is beneficial for patients with chronic lower back pain. They found that it was more effective than typical resistance training for alleviating chronic back pain. Yoga is a highly effective way of strengthening your core. There are certain yoga poses that are aimed directly at core strengthening or that help to develop your core strength through regular practice.
When done properly and with an experienced, knowledgeable yoga teacher, doing certain yoga poses is a sure way to help back pain. In some cases, it can completely eliminate it. Yoga works to stretch the spine, strengthen the back muscles and help with your posture, which are all things that effectively relieve and reduce back pain. Yoga for back pain will also improve overall flexibility and core strength, which are things that most people with chronic back pain lack. There are also specific poses that work for specific causes, like sciatica, herniated disc, scoliosis, and arthritis. The American College of Physicians has been urging doctors to have their patients turn to alternative therapies like yoga before taking prescription pain medications. Medications to alleviate pain are highly addictive.
We can go even further to say that stress, anxiety, and depression can be a cause of back pain. When we are stressed or anxious, we naturally tense up, which can cause our muscles to tighten and knots to occur. Yoga has been proven to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It puts you in a better mood, helps you become more aware of your breathing and even reduces fatigue. If back pain is caused solely by stress, anxiety or depression then yoga may be all that is needed to alleviate the problem.
How is Yoga Different than Physiotherapy?
Yoga is an ancient practice that has been practiced for over 3,000 years. Physiotherapy is new in comparison and is based more on science than centuries of experience. There are similarities between the two, but there are also many differences.
Yoga includes physical, mental and spiritual practices with teachers learning about how certain asanas (poses) and movements can help specific conditions. This includes back pain. It is a combination of movement, breath work, and mental focus, while at the same time building strength and flexibility. In most cases, yoga is a low-impact form of exercise with many benefits and is often used as a means of physiotherapy to help strengthen and balance the body. Yoga can also be used for weight loss, and as we know, excessive weight is a cause of back pain.
There are hundreds of different yoga poses, with each one working on strengthening and/or elongating a specific part, or parts, of the body. Breath is also important, as it is considered to be the prana (life force). There are several styles or schools of yoga, some of which are great for people with back pain, others that should be avoided. We will discuss this a little bit later.
Yoga teachers that are trained properly learn about anatomy and the effects yoga has on it. They can work with all aspects of a person. This includes the inner self and the outer self. People with or without back pain will learn how to manage physical exercise to ease whatever pain they have. They will additionally learn to manage mental pain or discomfort.
Physiotherapists are body therapists, working on healing the body alone. They use movements, exercises, manual therapy and electrotherapy as remedies to heal injuries and promote movement. Physiotherapy is used to improve a patient’s quality of life by first examining and diagnosing them. They are not medical doctors, but they are trained to diagnose physical problems like back pain through x-rays, CT-scans or MRI findings, and help in rehabilitation. They address the back pain alone rather than the body as a whole. They prescribe physical exercises, the use of mechanical devices, sound waves and manual therapy to help maintain and restore maximum movement.
Treatments like spine manipulation and massage therapy are used to heal back pain, which is something yoga doesn’t incorporate. Both of these have been proven to be safe interventions to improve back pain. Physiotherapists go through extensive training to learn all about the human muscular/structural form. They also learn how to treat specific problems like back and neck pain.
What’s the Difference?
Yoga teachers can’t diagnose a problem as physiotherapists can. They can, however, treat it once it is diagnosed. A physiotherapist can offer certain exercises to reduce pain while a yoga teacher finds ways to integrate movement as a way of healing. In terms of back pain, according to Dr. Robert Saper of the Boston Medical Center, they are both excellent non-drug approaches for lower back pain.
Yoga is a good alternative for those that would rather incorporate overall body movement and breathing to alleviate their pain as opposed to doing exercises solely for the lower back alone. Yoga will incorporate poses that work on the body as a whole. This includes core strengthening exercises. Physiotherapy will work t on minimizing back pain, be it the lower back, middle back or upper back.
Can Yoga Help Relieve Back Pain in Pregnancy?
Lower back pain is a common side effect in pregnant women, especially in the third trimester. There are three main reasons why this happens; biomechanics, hormones, and stress.
This refers to the way that your body holds itself and moves which are attributed to your posture and joints. When women are pregnant, the extra physical weight can make the body tip out of balance. The lumbar spine gets challenged and postural problems can occur. This can put a strain on the lower back. The more the baby grows, the more strain and weight the lower back has to bear, resulting in lower back pain. Biomechanics is the main cause of back pain in pregnancy.
The second most common cause of lower back pain in pregnancy involves the changing of hormones that occur throughout the first half of pregnancy. The progesterone rushes, which helps loosen and relax ligaments and tissues so they can stretch as the pregnancy progresses. During the second half of pregnancy, the brain releases relaxin to help the ligaments between the muscles of the pelvis open. This makes room for the baby to come out. The hormones also circulate throughout the rest of the body, which can result in an imbalance on your joints, causing lower back pain.
Stress is the third cause of back pain in pregnancy. Having a baby can be stressful for many women, especially if it’s the first child. We know that stress is a cause of back pain, as it tenses the muscles. Being aware of it and managing it will help to alleviate it or eliminate the pain altogether.
How Yoga Can Help
Prenatal yoga classes are becoming increasingly popular as it is a great way to feel more relaxed during pregnancy. A regular practice will also open the hips and hamstrings, improve your sense of balance, increase flexibility and strengthen your muscles. It will also relieve back pain. Here are the reasons why:
As your belly gets bigger, your posture will start to become compromised as a result of the extra weight on the front of your body. It can cause your lower back to overarch, your shoulders to slouch, your neck to extend and your chest to collapse. Prenatal yoga helps pregnant women sit, stand and move with proper alignment to assist their changing body. Poses like gomukhasana cow face pose, adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose) and trikonasana (triangle pose) are all great asanas (poses) for better posture.
Core work and pregnancy may seem a bit unnatural, but strong abs will help to protect your back and spine as the extra weight gets added on and your belly gets bigger. Some prenatal yoga poses, when done safely, will strengthen the abdominal muscles to support the added weight. Ab strengthening poses that are safe to do during pregnancy include utkatasana (chair pose), marjaryasana (cat pose) and kumbhakasana (plank pose).
Sacroiliac joint dysfunction is a common ailment in pregnant women. The sacroiliac joint sits between the sacrum and the hip bone and is stabilised by numerous ligaments. This allows for a gliding movement. During pregnancy, some hormones that are released can cause these ligaments to slack, making the joint less stable. This will then cause lower back pain on the side that this occurs on. There are yoga poses that can help to specifically target this pain, like sucirandhrasana (eye of the needle pose) and supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle pose).
Which Style of Yoga is Best for Back Pain?
There are so many different styles of yoga today. If you are suffering from back pain, there are a few styles that offer better advantages in terms of yoga for back pain.
Iyengar yoga focuses in proper alignment and precise movements. It is excellent for people who are not so supple or suffer from an injury, as it uses many props to help you along the way. The attention to detail and modification of every pose makes it a viable option for people who suffer from back pain, even if mobility is limited.
Most styles of yoga stem from Hatha, which is a traditional form of yoga. Like Iyengar, it focuses on alignment. But it also focuses on the breath while you move in and out of each pose. When practiced with an experienced, knowledgeable teacher, a hatha class should include adjustments to ensure proper alignment. This makes it a good choice for yoga for back pain. It is a slower paced style of yoga, so it is great for beginners.
Breathing is the main focus of viniyoga, with each movement being coordinated by breathing in or out. It is an approach that is used for unique conditions, adapting to each person’s specific needs. Basically, it is an individual practice, so it is a good option for helping with back pain.
Ashtanga yoga is divided into six series, with each increasing in intensity and complexity. You start with the first series (primary) and don’t move on to the secondary series (intermediate) until you master the first one. This is carried through until all are mastered, which could take upwards of 10 years. It is a disciplined style of yoga that should be practiced at least three times per week, though many practices it daily. It is a powerful form of yoga where movements are linked to breath, with Chaturanga Dandasana (four-limbed staff pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward dog pose) and Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog pose) done between each pose. It is popular amongst people who have had back injuries and are at the end stages of rehabilitation. With the right teacher, it can also be a good style of yoga for back pain.
5 Top Yoga Poses for Lower Back Pain
Lower back pain is the most common form of back pain, affecting every adult at least once in their lifetime. There are many yoga poses that can relieve lower back pain, but these are the top 5.
Commonly known as the child’s pose, Balasana takes the pressure off the lower back by elongating it and aligning the spine. This then decompresses the lower back, giving it a nice stretch. Beginners can modify the pose by putting a blanket or bolster between the back of the thighs and calves. Although it is a relaxing pose, it should be avoided for those with knee injuries and during pregnancy.
Also known as sphinx pose, Salamba Bhujangasana creates a nice natural curve of the lower back. It also engages and strengthens the abs. Strengthening the abs is essential for supporting the lower back and decreasing pain. It also helps to relieve stress. This pose should be avoided by anyone with a chronic back or shoulder injury. It is also not recommended during pregnancy.
Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Twist) is a fantastic stretch for the lower back, especially if it is tight. It is great for sciatic pain, and also hydrates the spinal discs and realigns the spine. Supine Twist can be modified by putting a blanket or pillow under your knees. The twisting movement can sometimes irritate the lower back. If this is the case, then abstain from the pose. People with knee problems should use caution when doing this pose.
Adho Mukha Svanasana
Known best as downward-facing dog pose, Adho Mukha Svanasana stretches the hamstrings and calves. Tight hamstrings can sometimes be a factor in lower back pain, so stretching them can help relieve it. It also helps with spine alignment and posture. If need be, bend your knees a little bit. People who have high blood pressure should not do this pose, nor should those with Carpal tunnel syndrome.
This pose, which is also called extended puppy pose, stretches the spine and shoulders, and releases pressure in the lower back. It can be modified by putting a blanket under your knees. You can also put blocks under your elbows or lift your head up from the ground. People with knee injuries should take caution when doing this pose.
5 Top Yoga Poses for Middle & Upper Back Pain
Middle and upper back pain is less common than lower back pain. It is however fairly common.and will usually be caused by strain or injury to a muscle or ligament. It can also come from bad posture. These are the top 5 yoga poses for middle and upper back pain.
This pose energizes the spine, twisting it and wringing out all of the stiffness. It relieves middle and upper back pain, as well as sciatica pain. It also stretches the shoulders, hips, and neck. It should not be done by anyone with a serious spine injury unless under the supervision of an experienced teacher.
Salabhasana (locust pose) strengthens the back muscles and the legs. It is especially good for middle back pain as it helps to develop strength and flexibility. Those with serious back injuries should avoid doing this pose. It should also be avoided during pregnancy.
Dadasana (staff pose) really helps you to get a sense of your middle and upper spine supporting the rest of your body. It will prompt you to sit properly, resulting in better posture. It strengths the back muscles and the shoulders, though it is not recommended for those with lower back injuries.
Commonly known as seated forward bend, Paschimottanasana stretches the upper and middle back, as well as the spine. It also helps to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which are causes of back pain. If you can’t touch your toes, hold a strap around your feet. Paschimottanasana should not be practiced by anyone with a serious back injury, although it is great for back pain.
Ardha Pincha Mayurasana
Also known as dolphin pose, Ardha Pincha Mayurasana relieves pain in the middle and upper back. It also stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, and calves, and relieves stress and depression. It can be modified by placing your elbows on a rolled-up mat. Those with neck or shoulder injuries should do this pose with their knees bent.
5 Top Yoga Poses for Overall Back Pain
Marjaryasana and Bitilasana
Although it is two poses Marjaryasana and Bitilasana (cat and cow pose) are usually combined and done together. Bitilasana is done on the inhale and Marjaryasana on the exhale. This brings mobility to the spine, as well as flexibility from the sacrum all the way to the top of the cervical spine. It is excellent for overall back pain, though particularly good for middle back pain. People with a neck injury should be extra mindful to keep their head in line with their torso.
Navasana (boat pose) strengthens the abs and hip flexors, which will ease back pain. We know that strong abs help with back pain, and doing Navasana does strengthen the muscles in the ab area. It will also strengthen your spine, improve digestion and help relieve stress. Navasana should not be performed by anyone with heart problems, low blood pressure or insomnia, and should be avoided during pregnancy.
Vyaghrasana (tiger pose) stretches and strengthens the spine and the back muscles, and all the muscles of your core. It also stimulates the lymphatic, nervous and reproductive systems. You can put a blanket or a rolled-up yoga mat under your knees to protect them. If you have a serious knee injury, Vyaghrasana should be avoided.
More commonly known as camel pose, Ustrasana is a deep back-bending pose that stretches and strengthens the entire back and spine. It also opens up the shoulders and chest, promoting good posture. Additionally, it stretches the deep hip flexors. It is an energizing pose that stimulates your organs. It should be not be done if you have serious lower back or neck injuries. It is also not good for those with high or low blood pressure.
Halasana is a great pose to reduce overall back pain. It stretches the entire back and spine as well as the shoulders. It is very therapeutic for backaches, insomnia, and headaches. Halasana (plow pose) should not be done during menstruation or pregnancy. It should also be avoided if you have a neck injury. If you can’t get your feet to the floor, prop them up on a chair or a block.
Yoga Poses to Avoid when you have Back Pain
Just like there are poses that are excellent for back pain, there are asanas that should be avoided when you have back pain. When you do them, you are risk of hurting yourself even further.
Sometimes referred to as forearm balance, Pincha Mayurasana (Feathered Peacock Pose) uses the core to stabilize the rest of the body. If you have back pain or injuries this pose should be avoided. It can cause strain on the back, resulting in more pain. It should also not be done while menstruating.
Although Matsyasana (fish pose) is good for mild back pain, it can cause more pain to those who suffer from chronic back pain. This is especially true when it comes to the lower back. It should also be avoided if you have a neck injury.
Pasasana (Noose Pose) is great for opening up the shoulders, chest, and posture. It’s not ideal to do this pose for back pain, especially the lower back. It should also be avoided by those with a herniated disc.
Better known as Full Wheel Pose, Urdva Dhanurasana is a great pose for building spine strength. It should be avoided by anyone with back injuries or chronic back pain. Still, it can be therapeutic for those with mild back pain when practiced under the supervision of an experienced yoga teacher.
Standing Forward Bend, as it is more commonly known, stretches the hamstrings, calves, and hips. It also reduces anxiety and helps relieve stress and depression. But Uttanasana can also compromise an injured back. A way to avoid this is to do it with your knees bent. You can also do it at a wall with your hands on the wall perpendicular to the floor. This will take the pressure off of your back but still give you the stretch in your legs.
When done properly under the supervision of an experienced yoga teacher, yoga can be a great relief of back pain. Prescribed medications can be avoided, and instead, you can find liberation by doing a regular yoga practice. If you suffer from back pain you should not attempt to do yoga on your own without knowing the proper alignment of each asana. In doing so, you can hurt yourself further. If you do chose to go the holistic route of yoga, be sure to research what poses are good or bad for back pain. It’s important to know all of the ins and outs of it.
A great source of regular information is to sign up for Siddhi Yoga’s newsletter or read more articles on yoga as Yoga Stretches for Beginners. You can also watch a video on YouTube, but make sure it is informative and everything is explained properly, like on this 30 minute Yoga for Back Pain video.