Yoga Eases Chronic Back Pain

Yoga has been studied as a treatment for back pain – because of its combined focus on stretching, strengthening and relaxing.
By Sarah C.P. Williams, updated 10/31/2011

Yoga for Chronic Back Pain

Yoga has been studied as a treatment for back pain because of its combined focus on stretching, strengthening and relaxing.

People with chronic back pain might benefit from hitting the yoga mat. Three months of weekly yoga classes eased back pain more than the usual course of care — an informative back pain booklet, according to a new study.

Even a year later, patients with chronic back pain who had participated in yoga classes reported less pain than those who hadn’t been assigned the classes. The study, conducted in the United Kingdom, followed 313 adults with nonspecific chronic back pain — in other words, ongoing back pain with no known physical cause.

“Even for patients who still had pain, they showed an improvement in being able to perform their normal daily activities,” said study researcher David Torgerson, of the University of York.

The new results were published October 31st in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They complement a U.S.-based study published last week that saw improvement in back pain among patients who participated in either yoga or stretching classes.

Torgerson and his colleagues recruited 313 back pain patients from throughout the U.K. All participants were given booklets on coping with back pain; 156 were also assigned three months of yoga classes.

The assigned yoga classes were run by 20 separate teachers, who all had special training in using yoga to treat back pain. Each weekly class was 75 minutes long, and designed for beginners. Additionally, instructors handed out home practice sheets so that the patients could continue to practice throughout the week.

“These classes were more gentle than a typical yoga class,” Torgerson said, “because the yoga teachers didn’t want to exacerbate any back pain. They put together a series of yoga poses that would increase, if patients could manage it, the ability to move.”

After three months, patients completed written questionnaires about their pain levels and how their back pain influenced their daily activities. More questionnaires were completed six months and 12 months after the start of the study.

At the conclusion of the yoga class, patients who had taken it were able to do 30 percent more activities than those who had received only the booklet. In addition, they reported more of a decrease in pain. Sixty percent of those from the yoga group said they were still practicing yoga on their own.

“This is an intervention that people can do at home once they’ve been trained to do it,” Torgerson said, citing one of the benefits of yoga over other types of treatment that require office visits for every flare up.

Yoga has been studied as a treatment for back pain because of its combined focus on stretching, strengthening and relaxing. But in a study published Oct. 24 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researcher Karen Sherman of the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle found that classes focused solely on stretching also provided a benefit.

“The main thing is that people need a number of options,” Sherman said. “Because nothing is going to work for everybody, and for these cases of nonspecific back pain, conventional medicine doesn’t have much to offer.”

Sherman’s trial was designed similarly to the new U.K. study, and included 228 adults. They were assigned to either yoga classes, stretching exercises or given an informational booklet. Both stretching and yoga improved patients’ back pain.

“When you see two different studies showing similar things, it gives you confidence that the results are robust,” Sherman said.

Both studies focused on patients with mild to moderate pain who had no other major health problems, Sherman said. Further studies may explore how yoga or stretching can ease more severe back pain, or help patients who have other health problems in addition to their back pain.

Still, Sherman cautions patients against racing to the nearest gym to sign up for yoga classes. “The yoga classes we studied weren’t just any yoga class,” she said. “It’s important to find an instructor who is accustomed to teaching beginners and accustomed to using yoga therapeutically.”

Pass it on: Regular participation in therapeutic yoga classes can ease mild to moderate chronic back pain.

Why Take Care of Your Tummy

Are you taking care of your Tummy?
By Annette K. Scott

When’s the last time someone touched you to your core? Or more specifically, when’s the last time someone rubbed your belly? Some cultures believe the abdomen to be the seat of the soul but regardless of where you believe your soul lies, you should have someone massage your tummy. Why, you might ask.

Well, first, did you know that you actually have two brains? And that what we know as our “gut” (more formally, our enteric nervous system) is more of a second brain than anything?

Our enteric nervous system is made up of efferent neurons, afferent neurons, and interneurons embedded into the lining of our gastro-intestinal system (read: esophagus, stomach and intestines).

Together, this complex circuitry and musculature enables our second brain to act independently, carry reflexes, learn, remember and, as the saying goes, produce gut feelings. And, if necessary, like in the unfortunate case of a stroke, it can even act as an integrating center in the absence of a central nervous system (our “traditional” brain and spinal cord) input.

In his book The Second Brain, Dr. Michael Gershon, a professor of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, dubs the entire gastrointestinal system the body’s second nervous system. “The brain is not the only place in the body that’s full of neurotransmitters,” says Dr. Gershon. “A hundred million neurotransmitters line the length of the gut, approximately the same number that is found in the brain…”

In fact, our gut and brain originated in early fetal development from the same clump of tissue. Eventually it divides and one section turns into the central nervous system, the other migrates and becomes the enteric nervous system. Later the two nervous systems connect via a cable called the vagus nerve — the longest of all the cranial nerves whose name is derived from Latin, meaning “wandering.” The vagus nerve meanders from the brain stem through the neck and finally ends up enervating in the abdomen.

And so, there’s the brain-gut connection – a feedback loop or more aptly, the constant conversation between our thinking and our feeling brains.

Our gastro-intestinal system and its accompanying nervous system is where we interface and absorb, digest and process what we are taking into our internal self from the external world. And yes, I am talking in both metaphor and hard science.

This is where we either nourish or deplete ourselves and it is where the conversation about what we feel about we think and what we think about what we feel begins. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that relax and healing the belly can relax and heal your mind.

So, knowing how important our gut actually is, I ask you again, “When’s the last time someone touched your stomach? And when is the last time you got a good belly massage?”

Because, clearly, with more nerve cells in the enteric nervous system than in the entire spinal cord, a healthy gut is necessary for us to enjoy neurological and psychological as well as immunological health.

And more to the point, massaging the abdomen can help:

• Relieve constipation and increase bowel function

• Relax abdominal and intestinal muscles (therefore releasing tension in this area)

• Stimulate activity of liver and kidneys

• Improve the elimination of metabolic waste

• Cleanse the body of wastes and toxic debris by stimulating the lymph system

• Increases kidney action to remove wastes of protein metabolism

• Enhance circulation of blood

• Improve the elimination and secretion of hormones

But most importantly, it just feels good. Conscious, loving touch at the soft center of our core holds the potential to deeply change how we experience the world and ourselves.

Additionally, as if all of the above wasn’t enough of a reason, did you know that if your diaphragm is tight it can constrict blood flow to the lower half of the body by as much as 40% and that that can contribute to varicose veins, aching, tingling legs as well as sore feet and heels…

So, what are you waiting for? Go get a belly massage and restore or insure your health! Thanks for reading!

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