The question

Besides pain medicine, physical therapy is a common prescription for people with chronic back pain. Might yoga be a reasonable alternative?

This study

The study involved 320 adults (average age: 46) with moderate to severe chronic lower back pain. About two-thirds took pain medication. All were randomly assigned to participate in 12 weeks of physical therapy (15 one-hour sessions plus home exercises) or 12 weeks of yoga (a dozen 75-minute classes plus home practice) or were given a self-help book and periodic newsletters on back pain plus phone check-ins. After the initial 12 weeks, the yoga and physical therapy groups had occasional sessions and did exercises or practiced at home for nine months; the others continued to get support by phone. By the end of the study, the physical therapy and yoga groups, on average, showed more improvement in pain levels and in ability to function than did the others, and they were more likely to have stopped taking pain medicine. The results were essentially the same for people who had practiced yoga and those who had gotten physical therapy.

Who may be affected?

Adults with chronic low back pain, which not only can be painful but also can limit movement and restrict activity. The pain can stem from an injury or can develop over time from normal wear and tear on the joints, disks and bones of the spine. Back pain is common, something an estimated 80 percent of people can expect to experience at some point and second only to upper respiratory infection as the reason people see a doctor.


Data on pain and functioning came from the participants’ responses on questionnaires. Most participants were women. The yoga classes were designed for people with low back pain, so results may not be the same for people taking a regular yoga class.

Find this study

Online June 20 in Annals of Internal Medicine (annals.org).

Learn more

Additional information can be found by searching for “low back pain” at ninds.nih.gov and ­orthoinfo.aaos.org.

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.