Yoga As Effective As Physical Therapy For Chronic Low Back Pain Interview with:

Robert B. Saper, MD, MPH Department of Family Medicine Boston Medical Center Boston, MA

Dr. Saper

Robert B. Saper, MD, MPH
Department of Family Medicine
Boston Medical Center
Boston, MA What is the background for this study?

Response: There are a number of studies that show that yoga is effective for chronic low back pain (cLBP), but those studies included mostly white and middle-class individuals as research participants. cLBP disproportionately impacts those who are economically disadvantaged and minorities; they receive less referrals to specialists, less referrals to rehabilitation, and also less patient-education. Therefore, it was important to test whether yoga would be well- received by an underserved population, as well as be an effective form of treating chronic low back pain.

This study consisted of patients from diverse racial and economic backgrounds with multiple medical problems who were able to successfully participate and benefit from both yoga and physical therapy. This study used yoga classes that were specifically designed for people suffering from  chronic low back pain and compared the results of that treatment to those who did physical therapy. What are the main findings?

Response: The results show that the yoga was as effective as physical therapy for reducing pain intensity and improving people’s physical function. Patients in the study who did yoga reported that their overall pain intensity went down, that they were able to be more physically active, and a number of patients were also able to reduce or even stop all of their pain medication. The study shows that when yoga is made available and affordable to a diverse population, people of both sexes, people who are disabled, and people of different races and economic backgrounds are both receptive to yoga and, more importantly, can benefit from it. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Doctors should know that a structured yoga program for cLBP is a reasonable, effective, and safe approach for patients with chronic  chronic low back pain. Patients with cLBP should talk with their doctors about different options for treatment of back pain, starting with non-drug approaches like yoga and physical therapy. Policy makers need to examine the potential benefits for patients and cost savings for covering non-pharmacological approaches to pain. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: The cost effectiveness of yoga and physical therapy for chronic low back pain still needs to be looked at carefully, as well as how the medical community can implement yoga classes for back pain widely.

While medication, imaging and invasive procedures absolutely have their place, research and clinical guidelines show that non-pharmacological procedures as first treatment options may be best. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: Yoga is increasingly popular in the United States, and many yoga teachers are available in urban areas. However, yoga teachers and yoga classes are still relatively rare in communities of color and disadvantaged areas. Therefore, it’s important that we begin to train, build, and make yoga more available to diverse communities. Changing the common view of yoga from a fitness exercise for the healthy and wealthy, to a therapeutic approach for people with chronic pain and other conditions, is also an ongoing challenge.

Finding that yoga is non-inferior to physical therapy makes a strong case that yoga programs like the one in this study should be covered by insurance and offered by health care facilities. When a therapy like yoga is shown to be as effective as standard therapies, it should be made available to everyone regardless of ability to pay. For patients who attended more classes or physical therapy sessions, their cLBP improvement was even greater. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Saper RB, Lemaster C, Delitto A, Sherman KJ, Herman PM, Sadikova E, et al. Yoga, Physical Therapy, or Education for Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Noninferiority Trial. Ann Intern Med. [Epub ahead of print 20 June 2017] doi: 10.7326/M16-2579

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.




Last Updated on June 27, 2017 by Marie Benz MD FAAD