by Jeffrey R. Carlson, MD
Exercise is the best thing you can do for your physical and emotional well-being, bar none. Every day, I see folks who “ride the couch” for 6 hours a day who complain of pain and stiffness in their backs. When these folks decide to start exercising, often times that back pain goes away and they start feeling better physically and mentally. Yoga is often suggested to build strength and flexibility, because anyone can do it, no matter their age. It is one of the most recommended forms of exercise on the planet, especially for those who have arthritis or other musculoskeletal conditions. So, what happens when doing yoga causes back pain?
You might be surprised to hear this, but a 2014 study found that back pain is the most often reported medical complaint among those who practice yoga. Why? There are several reasons:
1) Yoga (or any exercise) can cause tiny micro-tears in your muscles which will cause soreness, particularly if you are out of condition. Overdoing it and overstretching are the main culprits.
2) While yoga is recommended for those who want gentle, effective exercise, it can often bring to light an existing neck or back problem. People who have undiagnosed spinal issues may see an increase in pain because of the intense stretching involved.
3) Rounding the back or using bad form during postures, such as cobra or upward dog, can cause pain. Forward bending poses, such as downward dog, can also cause pain.
Use ice, Aleve or ibuprofen, heating pad or a hot bath/shower to alleviate soreness for 24-48 hours. This is common after many types of exercise, but the body needs a period of rest to heal and regenerate. If you do not feel better after a few days, see a physician, especially if you feel numbness, tingling or weakness in your limbs.
Let your body guide you. You should feel a gentle stretch, not a hard strain during the poses. Take a class with a certified instructor to make sure you are using correct form. Ask your instructor for beginner versions of the poses done in class while you build strength and flexibility. Certain poses help to build strength in the back and core, such as bridge pose, side plank and plank. The knee hug helps to release tension in the back and is even more soothing when a gentle rocking motion from side-to-side is added. Keep with it!
Finally, if you are doing all of the above and are still having pain, you should consult a fellowship-trained orthopaedic spine specialist who can determine if you have a spine-related issue that is causing the pain, instead of simple muscle soreness commonly felt after exercise.