To ease lower back pain, yoga might be just as good as physical therapy

And a heck of a lot cheaper.

Americans are spending $200 billion a year to treat their back pain, and most aren’t even happy with the treatment they’re getting. They’re often stuck relying on addictive pain meds or spending a fortune on physical therapy.

Chronic low back pain affects about 10 percent of American adults—primarily racial/ethnic minorities and people from lower income brackets—and it may be on the rise. So why haven’t we figured out how to treat it?

Plenty of studies have shown that yoga can be effective at treating lower back pain and reducing dependence on pain meds. This week, a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine—a high-ranking medical journal—showed that it can actually be just as effective as physical therapy. This is an important step in getting doctors to recommend yoga as a treatment option, and getting insurance companies to help cover it.

In this study, researchers at Boston Medical Center divided 320 people (mostly low-income, racially diverse adults) with chronic low back pain into three groups. One group got an educational book and some newsletters about coping with their pain. The second group went to 15 physical therapy visits, and the third got to go to 12 weeks of yoga classes tailored to help lower back pain.

Patients who tried yoga worked through gentle poses like cat-cow, triangle pose, and child’s pose, while those in physical therapy tried other stretching and strengthening exercises. And the people with the books … well, they kind of just got the short end of the stick, because unfortunately that’s how studies like this work.

The results showed that the yoga classes reduced pain and improved function just as well as physical therapy—and the benefits of both treatments held out a year later if people continued doing their exercises.

By the end of the 12 weeks, yoga and PT participants were 21 and 22 percent less likely than the education patients to use any pain medication. Plus, people were just more satisfied with the yoga and PT treatments than the “education” method. (Who wouldn’t be?)

The study found no significant differences in the effectiveness of yoga versus PT. But for people without health insurance (or those of us with less-than-great insurance) there could be a significant difference in cost for these two types of treatment. Yoga doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription, and it can be cheaper than PT by an order of magnitude. Or free, even, if you go on Youtube—though that’s probably not ideal for someone looking to treat their back pain, at least initially, since poor form might make injuries even worse. But if you’re facing tough choices in managing your chronic back pain, consider taking up a chill new hobby to see if it helps. Breathe deeply, and enjoy the sweet feeling of saving money!