How many people do you know who haven’t experienced back pain? Medical experts estimate that over 90 percent of all Americans will be plagued with back pain at some point during their lives. And when back pain strikes, it can be debilitating. A twinge today can mean agony tomorrow. An afternoon’s bed rest can turn into six weeks of missed work.
Back sufferers often resort to desperate measures to end the pain and get their lives back… even if that means expensive surgery or dangerous drugs.
“About 250,000 Americans have disk surgery each year,” says Ray Sahelian, M.D. “Another quarter-million choose physical therapy or painkillers.”
But recent studies show that surgery or drugs are not an effective answer.
“Two big government-funded studies [on] back pain surgery show no reason to choose an operation,” says Dr. Sahelian. “The pain and function of patients improved after two years whether or not they had low back pain surgery.”
So what is the solution? Believe it or not, the best scientific research says your best option may be something very old and simple, as well as cost-effective. Something gentle. Something that offers a truckload of additional health benefits. Something called yoga!
The Theory Behind Back Pain
Bestselling author Dr. John Sarno has theorized that tension triggers backache – that it causes a change in the muscles that results in blood – and oxygen – deprivation. And that results in muscle spasms and nerve pain.
The pain cycle breaks down like this:
- Chemical waste products in the muscles are usually carried away by blood, later to be detoxified elsewhere. Reduced circulation allows waste to accumulate in the muscle, which causes pain.
- Reduced blood flow starves muscles, tissue, ligaments, and bones of the oxygen nourishment they need.
- Oxygen depletion weakens the muscles and causes spasms and pain. The lower the oxygen level… the worse the pain.
“Patients spend small fortunes on consultations and long treatment,” says Dr. Sarno. “[But back pain] is generally harmless. It is not a disease or a malignancy. The pain is out of proportion to the condition causing it because the process is benign.”
Science Supports Yoga Relief
When your back starts to hurt, it’s tempting to opt for bed rest. But recent studies suggest that’s a mistake. Exercise – yoga in particular – stretches and strengthens the back muscles. This can not only relieve back pain… it can help prevent further injury. And as Dr. Sahelian points out, yoga is also effective for people plagued by chronic lower backaches.
In a study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers split 101 adults with persistent low back pain into two random groups.
Half were enrolled in a 12-week slow-moving viniyoga class. (Viniyoga coordinates movement with breathing and mental focus.)
The other half spent 12 weeks in a standard therapeutic exercise class.
The researchers found that the people taking the viniyoga-style class experienced quicker back pain relief than those in the standard exercise class. And they noted that even people using a self-help yoga book had better results.
After another three months, the standard exercise group, too, had improved. However, at the final review, researchers noted that, in every case, those doing yoga were using less than half as much pain medication as those in the standard exercise group.
“Yoga allowed the back pain sufferers to become more aware of their postures that may have [caused] their back problems in the first place,” says Dr. Sahelian.
Key Benefits of Yoga
Research studies and leading medical experts agree that yoga is great for relieving back pain. Even better, it helps to improve your posture and may realign your spine… thus preventing future episodes.
“Yoga helps to stretch muscles, ligaments, tendons, and improves balance,” says Dr. Sahelian. “It’s an all-in-one body conditioner.”
It also has many other health benefits. Here are just a few…
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves heart health
- Improves mood
- Reduces stress
- Improves balance
- Increases energy
- Promotes better sleep
4 Quick-and-Easy Yoga Exercises to Strengthen Your Back
When doing these exercises, be sure to keep breathing regularly throughout the range of motion. Regular breathing will prevent muscle strain.
1. Yoga Sit-Up
Position a chair in the middle of a room. Lie on your back and hook your knees over the chair so that your calves are resting on the seat. Your hips and knees should be bent at a 90-degree angle. Cross your arms over your chest and place your hands on your shoulders.
Breathe out slowly and press your lower back to the floor. Flatten your stomach. Then smoothly roll your shoulders six-to-10 inches off the floor and try to hold this position for five to 10 seconds. Don’t curve your spine – just lift your shoulders. Keep your lower back flat against the floor.
Still in this elevated position, lower your right shoulder to touch the floor and then raise it back up. Then gently roll your head and shoulders back to the floor. Repeat with your left shoulder.
Repeat this exercise until your abs start to tighten and burn. Then do it one or two more times and quit.
2. Mountain Pose
For the Mountain Pose, don’t wear shoes or socks – go barefoot.
Begin by standing with your feet five to eight inches apart. Your feet should be directly in line with your hips.
Keep your upper body straight and gently bend your knees forward, past the center of your feet. Resist the temptation to increase the curve of the small of your back. Your stomach should stay flat and straight – not roll forward.
Inhale smoothly and slowly. Then exhale, slowly pushing your feet into the floor and straightening your knees. Be careful not to lock your knees in place. Hold this pose for one minute.
Try to practice this exercise several times each day.
3. Cobra Pose
Ease into the Cobra Pose gently. If your lower back is stiff, it may feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. The discomfort will lessen as you become more flexible.
Begin by lying on your stomach. Rest your head on your arms.
Slowly raise your forehead and look upward. Then stretch your hands backward. Allow your weight to rest on your chest. Keep your breathing relaxed.
Bring your head toward your back, with the movement coming from your neck and chin. Roll your stomach backward, as if someone were pulling your arms. Your weight should shift toward your belly, stretching your lower back. Your butt muscles should be relaxed.
Raise your chest as far as it will go. Maintaining this bend, place your hands next to your chest on the floor. Straighten your arms so that they are perpendicular to the floor. Then turn your arms inward. Relax your lower back and bear your weight with your arms. Try to hold for five to 10 seconds.
4. Fish Pose
Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and your arms at your side.
Arch your back as far as you can. Raise it off the ground and push into the floor with your elbows.
Tilt your head backward, and rest the crown of your head on the floor.
Breathe deeply from your diaphragm, and try to hold this pose for one minute.
Yoga is a great way to loosen your back muscles and improve the alignment of your spine. This makes it a useful component in improving back strength and relieving back pain. In the next issue of NHD Undercover, we’ll review a comprehensive program that mixes yoga, Pilates, and other exercises to give you the best back health ever.
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To your health,
NHD “Health Watch”
About Dr. Ray Sahelian
Dr. Sahelian is a graduate of Philadelphia’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Medical School and operates a private practice in California. He’s a medical expert of international repute and a bestselling author. He has appeared on NBC Today, NBC Nightly News, CBS This Morning, Dateline NBC, and CNN.