Lower back pain has been on the rise for some time and has proven notoriously difficult to treat. A recent study suggests that yoga can ease the pain of those with lower back problems and also reduce their level of depression and need for pain medication.

The study utilized Iyengar yoga, a form of hatha yoga which employs various props—cushions, blocks and even sandbags—to help beginners get into physical poses which might otherwise not be possible for them without extensive training. Maintaining these poses helps build strength, flexibility and balance.

[A] lack of exercise leads to weakening of back muscles, setting the stage for even more pain.

Sufferers of lower back pain often reduce or stop exercising, worrying that exercise will make the pain worse. This isn't likely to happen unless they overdo it. Instead, lack of exercise leads to weakening of back muscles, setting the stage for even more pain.

Physically, exercises such as yoga improve the situation by strengthening muscles of the midsection, including the back extensors, abdominals and gluteus. This stabilizes the trunk and decreases the load on the spine, creating a brace around it. Less work for the spine means less back pain. And many people also find the psychological, emotional and spiritual concepts taught by yoga beneficial to their health.

This study, published in the September 1 issue of the journal, Spine, looked at 90 people, aged 23 to 66, who had mild to moderate disability as a result of their pain. They were split into two groups. One group did 90−minute sessions of Iyengar yoga twice a week, for 24 weeks. The other group continued whatever treatments or therapy they had been undergoing. Evaluation was by questionnaires filled out 12 and 24 weeks into the study, as well as at a follow−up six months after the end of the study.

The yoga group reported significantly less pain, depression and need for pain medication, as well as improved function. These improvements remained, slightly lessened, six months after the study's conclusion.