Dear Doctor: A few months ago, my husband and I helped our oldest son move into his first apartment. I don't know what happened exactly, but my lower back has been hurting ever since. I would rather not use any medications and have heard that yoga can be good for back pain. Is this true?
Dear Reader: First, as fellow parents, we want to congratulate you on the milestone of your son's first apartment. It's not surprising that you may have accidentally overdone it with the heavy lifting.
The localized pain you describe sounds like muscle strain, which can result from overuse. Other causes could be poor posture or body mechanics during tasks that involve lifting, pulling or twisting. Another common type of back pain, which originates in the lower back or buttocks region and radiates down one leg, is associated with bulging or ruptured discs. These can press on the sciatic nerve, which will cause sharp, stabbing pain.
The good news is that yoga can help you manage and ease the type of lower back pain you have described. The gentle and deliberate movements associated with the practice of hatha yoga make it possible to isolate specific muscle groups. The poses are designed to alternately strengthen muscle groups and then gently stretch them. The movements are also slow enough that you can stop the instant you feel discomfort or pain. Yoga is also effective at developing "core strength," or the abdominal muscles that support an upright spine and proper alignment.
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Hatha yoga involves certain "poses" that can be helpful for lower back pain. This portion of an asana, or yoga pose, is typically accompanied by slow, deep breathing, which results in additional relaxation. People with lower back pain who seek relief through hatha yoga report that the practice gives them enhanced awareness of proper spinal alignment, which promotes good posture.
Check with your doctor or physical therapist before starting a yoga program for lower back pain. When done improperly, any type of exercise, even yoga, can aggravate the injury and make matters worse. (And please note that yoga is not recommended for anyone with a slipped disc or a spinal fracture.)
If your health care provider agrees that yoga is a good fit for your situation, you can take some easy steps to make sure you stay safe. Consider classes that are designed specifically to address lower back pain. Special yoga classes often are available at senior centers or community centers. If a general yoga class is the only option in your area, tell the instructor that you have a back injury. He or she may be able to tailor the poses to your specific needs and reduce the risk of further harm to your back as you perform the poses.