Millions of Americans who suffer from lower back pain often resort to physical therapy to help alleviate their discomfort. But, there may be an alternative that’s just as effective: yoga.

New research from Boston Medical Center found that a yoga class designed specifically for those with chronic low back pain may help patients experience less pain and be more mobile.

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Although past research indicates yoga helps treat low back pain, it wasn’t clear how this exercise fares against standard treatments covered by health insurance, such as physical therapy.

The study, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, involved more than 300 low-income, racially diverse adults with chronic low back pain. They were assigned to one of three treatment groups: a weekly yoga class for 12 weeks, 15 physical therapy (PT) visits, or an informational group that received materials about coping with back pain. During the rest of the year, the yoga group was assigned to participate in either studio or at-home yoga classes. The PT group was assigned to do additional sessions with a physical therapist or at-home PT exercises.

During the course of the study, participants filled out a 23-point questionnaire, which helped the researchers understand how their levels of pain changed over time.

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The findings revealed patients in both the yoga and PT group showed nearly the same improvement in pain. Additionally, participants in both groups were less likely to use pain medications at the 3 month mark, than the group who received educational newsletters and books.

However, when it comes to helping relieve back pain, not all yoga may be equally helpful.

“I’m not recommending that people just go to any yoga class,” study author Rob Saper told NPR.

The class used in the research was specifically designed for the study. The authors provide a free guidebook that outlines tips and poses for practicing yoga with low back pain.

Saper and his colleagues' findings mimic the new guidelines from the American College of Physicians (ACP), which present clinical recommendations on noninvasive ways to treat low back pain. In addition to yoga, the ACP highlights the benefits of tai chi and massage.

If the research indicates yoga may be as effective as PT, Saper says, “maybe yoga should be considered a potential therapy that can be more widely disseminated and covered [by insurance],” NPR reported.

Future research on a larger population of participants is needed to be better understand if the ancient practice is truly effective to alleviate discomfort among those with chronic low back pain. If it is, then yoga has the capacity to help a wide range of people considering about 31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time, according to the American Chiropractic Association.

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