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Dear Doctor: I've had lower back pain for years, but I can't afford to go to a physical therapist. My husband, who started taking a yoga class at the community center here a few months ago, swears that his back pain is going away. Just how effective is yoga for lower back pain?

Dear Reader: When it comes to back pain, you and your husband have plenty of company. It's estimated that 80 percent of all adults will experience it over the course of their lifetimes. And little wonder.

The spine is a feat of engineering. Bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, nerves and other specialized tissues interconnect to form a strong and flexible column. They bear the weight of the upper body while providing an axis from which we can stretch, bend, reach and pivot. But when any one part of the spine moves out of alignment, whether due to injury, illness or overuse, the result is pain and, occasionally, immobility.

Your question addresses pain in the lower back, which is also known as the lumbar spine. And for that, we have some promising news. The results of a recent study by researchers at the Boston Medical Center suggest that practicing certain yoga poses is a viable alternative to physical therapy for dealing with chronic lumbar pain.

The study recruited 320 adults who were living with chronic lower back pain that they rated from moderate to severe. The participants were divided into three separate treatment groups.

One group took part in 15 one-hour physical therapy sessions over the course of three months, and was assigned additional exercises to do at home. A second group took weekly 90-minute yoga classes over the course of the three months, and was also assigned additional home exercises. The third group of participants did not take part in any kind of treatment. Instead, they received a self-help book about back pain, occasional newsletters with information about lumbar health and access to telephone check-in sessions.

After the first three months of the study, the yoga group and the physical therapy group each continued with their forms of therapy for an additional nine months. When the study concluded a year after it had begun, the group that underwent physical therapy and the group that took yoga classes self-reported similar improvement in both pain levels and improved mobility.

Both of these groups reported feeling better than the group that was given only back pain literature. In addition, the individuals in the physical therapy group and the yoga group were more likely to have stopped using medication to manage their pain.

But before you rush out and sign up for any old yoga class, it's important to note that the exercises done by the participants in this study were geared specifically to address issues of the lumbar spine. That means that the areas of the spine targeted by the yoga postures, as well as the pace of the exercises and their intensity, were carefully calibrated.

If you decide to give yoga a try, find an experienced teacher and be sure to let her or him know your specific limitations.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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