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Can yoga, tai chi and qigong help relieve low back pain?

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Are mind-body interventions such as yoga effective in relieving low back pain? A research review published in the journal Holistic Nursing Practice looks at the evidence.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University analysed 32 studies on the effects of three movement-based mind-body interventions on chronic low back pain. They examined yoga; tai chi, which combines gentle physical exercise and stretching with mindfulness; and qigong, a traditional Chinese meditative movement therapy focused on body awareness and attention during slow, relaxed and fluid repetitive body movements.

For the review, the researchers compared and contrasted yoga, tai chi and qigong by examining the frequency and duration of these interventions; primary and secondary outcomes; attrition rates and possible adverse events; and results.

The majority of the published studies showed that movement-based mind-body interventions are effective for treatment of low back pain, with positive outcomes such as reduction in pain or psychological distress such as depression and anxiety, reduction in pain-related disability, and improved functional ability. In particular, longer duration and high-dose yoga intervention showed reductions in back pain while tai chi reduced acute lower back pain in males in their 20s. Tai chi also was more effective than stretching for lower back pain in young males. In the general community, tai chi showed greater reductions in pain intensity, bothersomeness of pain symptoms, and pain-related disability than the control intervention. As there was only a limited number of qigong studies, it was unclear whether this intervention is useful in treating chronic lower back pain.

Existing research suggests positive benefits of yoga, however, both tai chi and qigong for lower back pain are still under-investigated, the researchers concluded.

“Yoga, tai chi and qigong could be used as effective treatment alternatives to pain medications, surgery, or injection-based treatments such as nerve blocks, which are associated with high incidence of adverse effects in treating lower back pain,” commented Juyoung Park, Ph.D., from Florida Atlantic University, corresponding author of the study.

Park added that more clinical trials are needed to provide empirical evidence so that clinicians can prescribe these types of interventions with more confidence for managing lower back pain.