Chronic low back pain affects approximately 10% of US adults and has a greater impact on racial or ethnic minorities and in people of lower socioeconomic status. Physical therapy is the most common evidence-based, reimbursable, and non-pharmacologic therapy prescribed by physicians, but clinical guidelines, meta-analyses, and several large randomised controlled trials also support yoga.
How these two therapies stack up against one another had not been studied before this research. Moreover, little is known about yoga’s effectiveness in underserved patients with more severe functional disability and pain.
Researchers from Boston Medical Center randomly assigned participants to 12 weekly yoga classes, 15 physical therapy visits, or an educational book and newsletters about coping with chronic low back pain. Following the intervention phase, participants continued with a maintenance phase and were followed to one year. The goal of the non-inferiority trial was to determine if yoga was statistically as effective as physical therapy.
The researchers found that a yoga class designed for chronic low back pain patients was as effective as physical therapy for reducing pain, improving function, and lowering use of pain medication. Improvements in yoga and physical therapy groups were maintained at one year with no differences between maintenance strategies. The researchers conclude that yoga may be a reasonable alternative to physical therapy depending upon patient preferences, availability, and cost.