RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to talk about back pain now because it afflicts a whole lot of people. About 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have experienced some form of it. Pain medication is usually the first thing people turn to for relief. But new research says you might want to strike a yoga pose before you reach for the pills. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Back pain can come on all at once with no specific trigger. Floretta Francis (ph) remembers waking up one morning with pain that lingered for months.
FLORETTA FRANCIS: Sometimes it was hard for me to come out of bed. This is no joke.
AUBREY: Francis started taking ibuprofen several times a day, but still the pain nagged at her. When she went to see her doctor, she was recruited to participate in a study to see if yoga could be an effective way to ease the pain. Francis was very skeptical. She thought of yoga as exercise for fit people, not a treatment for back pain.
Rob Saper is a physician at Boston Medical Center and the leader of the new study. He says he's used to the skepticism, which is why he wanted to see how yoga stacked up, in an objective way, against something that's known to help, physical therapy.
ROBERT SAPER: Physical therapy is accepted. It's reimbursed. It's offered in most hospitals. So given my interest in yoga, I wanted to see how it compared in its effectiveness to PT.
AUBREY: Saper worked with a group of yoga and medical experts to design a class specifically for back pain. It's extremely gentle and includes basic stretching poses like cat cow and child's pose. It also includes breathing and relaxation techniques. Floretta Francis says when she walked into the first class, after a hectic day of work and a long commute, this is what greeted her.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FRANCIS: They played very calm and soothing music. You were doing the yoga exercises listening to the sound of the ocean, which was remarkable.
AUBREY: Francis was part of one group of study participants who took the yoga class once a week for three months. Another group received physical therapy. Then, Saper says, all the participants were assessed to see if they felt any better. Not everyone improved, but many did.
SAPER: What we found was in three months, yoga improved as well as physical therapy in terms of pain intensity and also how well people were functioning.
AUBREY: Saper says the findings fit with what a few prior studies have found. And what's significant about this study is that the participants were not the Lululemon set. About 80 percent of them live on low incomes. Some don't have as much access to health care or time to exercise. Now, since this study shows yoga can be as effective as physical therapy, Saper says...
SAPER: Maybe yoga should be considered as a potential therapy that could be more widely disseminated and covered.
AUBREY: At the end of the study, the researchers gave out yoga mats and guidebooks and encouraged participants to keep up the practice at home. Floretta Francis says she feels better these days.
FRANCIS: I'm no longer taking ibuprofen, and I'm very much happy.
AUBREY: Now, she says, when she feels a little tweak in her back, she rolls out her yoga mat. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRAN6'S "HYPERION")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.