Lower back pain is amongst the most common afflictions in adults and effects roughly 80% of Americans. Be it a strain from overuse, injury, or a misalignment of vertebrae, most patients will experience back pain at some point in their life. Patients suffering from back pain often find themselves unable to perform their normal routines which can lead to depression, disturbances in sleep, anxiety, and social isolation.
There are a number of treatment options available to combat the issue, but some patients may be wondering if they could find relief through the practices of yoga, tai chi, or qigong. In this article we will examine the three practices and discuss their efficacy in combating back pain.
Yoga is a group of mental, spiritual, and physical practices that originated in ancient India. While there are several different forms or varieties of yoga available, they all focus on creating harmony between the mind and body in order to improve health and happiness. The practice revolves around low-impact physical activities or postures combined with relaxation, breath control, diet, and meditation.
Originating in ancient China, Tai Chi and Qigong also focus on integration between the body and mind. Through controlled movements, meditation, and breathing techniques, tai chi and qigong aim to cultivate life energy, known as qi (pronounced “chi”), to achieve harmony between mind and body. The practices’ focus on tranquility and clear thought are believed to improve health and wellness.
While all three practices have similarities aimed at improving overall physical and mental wellbeing, questions remain regarding their effectiveness in combating back pain. A review of 32 case studies across the three practices indicate that movement-based interventions may be effective for the treatment of low back pain. Some practitioners reported reductions in pain, lower levels of depression and anxiety, as well as improved functional abilities.
Despite some positive conclusions from the case study reviews, there remains difficulty in drawing firm conclusions from the data currently available. One of the primary limitations is that the study was a narrative review. A narrative review generally collates information on a topic rather than providing any data analysis. Many of the studies lacked clear explanation of how the teams conducted the experiments which makes any reported results suspect. Some studies even showed adverse events that only further contributed to joint and back pain. Additionally, some of the case studies analyzed were relatively brief making any long-term effects difficult to ascertain.
Clearly, more thorough clinical trials and tangible evidence are needed in order for doctors to comfortably prescribe these interventions for lower back pain. Despite the significant doubt that remains regarding their overall efficacy, there is a psychological component to chronic lower back pain that could be improved by engaging in mind and body exercises associated with yoga, tai chi, and qigong. Future testing to address the brain and body connections that these practices stress, will be needed. As it stands now, we cannot say with a high degree of certainty if yoga, tai chi, or qigong are effective in relieving lower back pain.