5 Ways Yoga Can Help Back Pain | Omega

Yoga is an ideal preventative for those who have chronic or occasional back pain—or for those who simply want to avoid pain as best they can, says Dr. Loren Fishman, a back-pain specialist who prescribes yoga to his patients.

Everyone has back pain from time to time. Whether this pain is severe and chronic or short-lived, it often causes misery as well as curtails everyday activities. 

Yoga has been associated with healing through the millennia. It can address existing back pain both through prevention, and directly, with attention to the specific cause of the pain.

Preventing Pain in 5 Primary Ways

Since everyone suffers from back pain at one time or another, the world has turned to prevention as one of the principal means of dealing with it. Yoga is an ideal preventative for those who have chronic problems, for those who have pain occasionally, and for those who simply want to avoid pain as best they can.

Overall prevention is impossible. What I mean is that you can’t prevent all colds and flu, you can’t prevent the accident that causes a broken leg, you can’t keep all misfortunes from happening. What you can do, however, is take care.

When it comes to colds and flu, for example, washing your hands and keeping your immune system healthy with diet and lifestyle may make a difference in how often you come down with these illnesses. 

Paradoxically, in back pain, prevention constitutes cure. Your goal is to stop pain from becoming chronic.

Yoga does this in five ways: stretching muscles to reduce spasm and increase flexibility, strengthening muscles and bones, increasing range of motion, sharpening focus and self-awareness, and producing calm.

You can practice yoga just about anywhere, without spending any money, without any props, without making any noise, and without wearing any special garb.

Increasing Flexibility Through Stretch and Relaxation

A joint in the human body is really miraculous, moving back and forth as many as hundreds of thousands of times a day for as long as a hundred years, without ever getting stuck!

When something does go wrong, however, wear and tear may take place and range of motion may become limited.

Through well-known stretching postures, yoga extends the range of motion of the joints. The inside of the joint capsule, which surrounds the joint much the way a gasket surrounds the juncture between the sink and a faucet, secretes a thick, lubricating substance called synovial fluid, which greases the joint, lubricates it, and allows it to move freely. 

If tendons, ligaments, or muscles associated with the joint become tight, the fluid may not be enough to keep it working properly. Movement may be limited, or there may be pain. Using the synovial fluid to its and the patient’s advantage, yoga can help extend the capsule and allow it to continue to function as a secreter and container of synovial fluid.

Ligaments around the joint are made of basically the same stuff as the capsule, but they are much stronger. Their function is to protect the capsule against overly vigorous movement or movement beyond the normal range of motion. Hatha yoga can stretch ligaments little by little if they become tight or stiff.

Yoga can also stretch tense or shortened muscles, changing their length through the continuous pressure exerted on them when an individual attains and holds a particular pose. The stretch itself may engender some pain.

While that isn’t always entirely pleasant, the pain does serve a purpose. It calls attention to the problem area and is likely to provide motivation for an individual to gain control of, say, a particular muscle.

Through repeated effort, one learns to make that muscle relax. A relaxed muscle can stretch further. That is key.

Yoga can be used to control the muscle spasm that is so common in back pain by helping relax a particular muscle and then stretching the muscle further so that more movement is possible with less pain.

Around joints, yoga increases range of motion; the joints around the place where pain actually occurs adapt to take on some of the strain from the places that are producing the pain, allowing them to heal.

Building Strength Through Weight Bearing and Isometric Exercise

There are two ways yoga increases strength. First, as with any exercise, muscles get stronger when holding a specific position for any length of time, even for a few seconds, because the body has to fight against the forces of gravity to keep itself in position.

In this way, yoga is a little like lifting weights. The weights are your own body or limbs. But yoga also increases strength isometrically. Isometric exercise takes place when two sets of muscles contract to resist one another but without joints moving. For example, if you lace your fingers together and then try to pull your hands apart, your muscles will contract. With repetition, this increases strength.

Students of yoga who do poses, or asanas, develop personal techniques for relaxing their muscles. Nerves may release electrical charges in all their fibers simultaneously because the individual practicing yoga has learned to relax a muscle.

It stands to reason that the opposite is also true: where there is relaxation, there can also be its opposite, excitation. A person who has learned to relax a muscle can also learn how to forcefully contract or strengthen it.

Excerpted from Healing Yoga: Proven Postures to Treat Twenty Common Ailments—from Backache to Bone Loss, Shoulder Pain to Bunions, and More by Loren Fishman, MD. © Copyright 2015, W. W. Norton & Company.

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