A study conducted by the University of York reveals that the practice of yoga could provide more effective treatment for chronic lower back pain than more conventional methods.

The study found that people offered a specially-designed 12-week yoga program experienced greater improvements in back function and more confidence in performing everyday tasks than those offered conventional forms of GP care.

The research focused on back function - people's ability to undertake activities without being limited by back pain, which was measured using the Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire. Although improvements in back function were more pronounced at three months, researchers found there was still an improvement in people's ability to perform tasks such as walking more quickly, getting dressed without help or standing up for longer periods of time even nine months after the classes had finished.

"Back pain is an extremely common and costly condition. Exercise treatment, although widely used and recommended, has only a small effect on back pain. We therefore set out to investigate an alternative approach using a specially-developed weekly yoga program for back pain sufferers to see if this allowed them to manage their back pain more successfully," said Professor David Torgerson, Director of York Trials Unit, in a statement.

"The previous studies have focused on the short-term benefits of yoga, we also wanted to see the long-term effects and measured improvements three, six and 12 months after entry into the study. Our results showed that yoga can provide both short and long-term benefits to those suffering from chronic or recurrent back pain, without any serious side-effects," he added.

The trial involved two groups of people who were both receiving GP care for chronic or recurrent back pain. 156-strong groups were offered group yoga classes specially designed to improve back function, while a second control group of 157 people were offered GP care alone.

The yoga program, which involved 20 experienced yoga teachers, was designed and delivered by Truro-based Alison Trewhela, an Iyengar yoga teacher and a Senior Practitioner in yoga listed on the British Register of Complementary Practitioners, in collaboration with York-based yoga teacher Anna Semlyen, a Back Care Advisor to the British Wheel of Yoga.

The classes were designed for complete beginners, with yoga teachers given extra training in back care. Participants were recruited from 39 general practices in seven Primary Care Trust areas, with classes held in non-NHS premises in Cornwall, North London, West London, Manchester and York.

"We are delighted that our trial has shown that yoga provides such positive benefits for people with chronic low back pain. This extremely common condition cannot be managed with painkillers alone and there is an urgent need to have non-drug therapies that sufferers can utilize in their own home. This trial is part of our larger commitment to seek self-help solutions to this common musculoskeletal problem," said Professor Alan Silman, the Medical Director of Arthritis Research UK.

However, researchers also compared results from the yoga program with those for high-quality randomized trials for exercise and manipulation - the Alexander technique and cognitive-behavioral treatment. The results suggested that the 12-week yoga group program may improve back function more than exercise and manipulation, cognitive-behavior treatment and six sessions of 1-to-1 Alexander technique but not as much as 24 sessions of 1-to-1 Alexander technique.

Participants in the yoga program were surveyed nine months after classes finished and more than half of those who responded were still regularly practicing yoga, mostly at home, twice a week.