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NCCIH Clinical Digest

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Yoga for Pain:
What the Science Says

September 2018
yoga and pain


Clinical Guidelines, Scientific Literature, Info for Patients: 



Recent systematic reviews and randomized clinical trials provide encouraging evidence that some mind and body practices such as yoga may help relieve some fibromyalgia symptoms. Current diagnostic criteria are available from the American College of Rheumatology. Treatment often involves an individualized approach that may include both pharmacologic therapies (prescription drugs, analgesics, and NSAIDs) and nonpharmacologic interventions such as exercise, muscle strength training, cognitive-behavioral therapy, movement/body awareness practices, massage, acupuncture, and balneotherapy.

What Does the Research Show?

  • In 2017, the European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) evaluated non-pharmacologic therapies, including complementary health approaches, and issued revised recommendations for the management of fibromyalgia. The strength of these recommendation is “based on the balance between desirable and undesirable effects (considering values and preferences), confidence in the magnitude of effects, and resource use. A strong recommendation implies that, if presented with the evidence, all or almost all informed persons would make the recommendation for or against the therapy, while a weak recommendation would imply that most people would, although a substantial minority would not.”
    • Based on the evaluation of acupuncture, meditative movement practices (e.g., tai chi, qi gong, and yoga), and mindfulness-based stress reduction, the recommendation for each was weak for use of the therapy.
  • A 2015 Cochrane review of 61 trials involving 4,234 predominantly female participants with fibromyalgia concluded that the effectiveness of biofeedback, mindfulness, movement therapies (e.g., yoga), and relaxation techniques remains unclear as the quality of evidence was low or very low.


Low-Back Pain

For patients with chronic low-back pain, recent evidence-based clinical practice guidelines from the American College of Physicians gave a strong recommendation based on moderate-quality evidence that clinicians and patients should initially select nonpharmacologic treatment with exercise, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, acupuncture, or mindfulness-based stress reduction. The guidelines also strongly recommend, based on low-quality evidence, several mind and body approaches, including yoga.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2018 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality evaluated 8 trials of yoga for low-back pain (involving 1,466 total participants) and found that yoga improved pain and function both in the short term (1 to 6 months) and intermediate term (6 to 12 months). The effects of yoga were similar to those of exercise. 
  • 2017 clinical practice guidelines issued by ACP strongly recommended yoga, based on low-quality evidence, as initial treatment for patients with chronic low-back pain. A systematic review supporting the 2017 clinical practice guidelines evaluated 14 randomized controlled trials and found that yoga was associated with lower pain scores, although the effects were small and were not always statistically significant. 
  • A 2017 Cochrane review of 12 trials involving 1,080 participants found low- to moderate-certainty evidence that yoga compared to non-exercise controls results in small to moderate improvements in back-related function at 3 and 6 months. Yoga may also be slightly more effective for pain at 3 and 6 months, however the effect size did not meet predefined levels of minimum clinical importance.
  • A 2017 randomized controlled trial involving 320 predominantly low-income, racially diverse adults showed that yoga and physical therapy offer similar pain-relief and functional benefits to people with low socioeconomic status who had chronic low-back pain. These improvements were greater than self-education; however, they were not considered significant. 
  • A 2016 review of complementary health approaches for pain management included six randomized controlled trials of yoga for chronic low-back pain (involving 596 adults). The review found that compared with usual care, two studies found that yoga provided improvements in pain and function, but the results were mixed when compared with exercise/stretching. A dose-response study compared once-weekly to twice-weekly classes and found that they produced equivalent improvements in pain intensity and function. Three smaller studies compared yoga with wait list or education control and reported significant modest reductions in pain intensity and function/disability.


Neck Pain

There is some limited evidence that yoga may provide short-term improvements for neck pain.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2017 review of 3 studies (involving 188 total participants) found that yoga had short-term benefits for both the intensity of neck pain and disability related to neck pain.



Only a few studies have been conducted on yoga for headaches, so there aren’t enough data to determine if yoga has beneficial effects for this pain condition.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2015 attempt to review the research on this topic found only one study with 72 participants that could be evaluated. That study had favorable results, with decreases in headache intensity and frequency.



Results from clinical trials suggest that some mind and body practices, including yoga, may be beneficial additions to conventional treatment plans for patients with arthritis, but some studies indicate that these practices may do more to improve other aspects of patients’ health than to relieve pain.

What Does the Research Show?

  • A 2018 meta-analysis of 13 clinical trials involving 1557 patients with knee osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis found that regular yoga training may be useful in reducing knee arthritic symptoms, promoting physical function, and general wellbeing in arthritic patients.
  • A 2017 review of two studies found some beneficial effect on pain, but due to the high risk of bias in both studies, the reviewers gave a weak recommendation for yoga in rheumatoid arthritis. Yoga incorporates several elements of exercise that may be beneficial for arthritis, including activities that may help improve strength and flexibility.
  • A 2013 systematic review of 8 randomized controlled trials involving a total of 559 participants found very low evidence on the effects of yoga on pain associated with RA. 


  • Yoga is generally considered a safe form of physical activity for healthy people when performed properly, under the guidance of a qualified instructor. However, as with other types of physical activity, injuries can occur. The most common injuries are sprains and strains. Serious injuries are rare.
  • People with health conditions, older adults, and pregnant women may need to avoid or modify some yoga poses and practices. 


  • Chen L, Michalsen A. Management of chronic pain using complementary and integrative medicine. BMJ. 2017;357:j1284.

    Chen L, Michalsen A. Management of chronic pain using complementary and integrative medicine. BMJ. 2017;357:j1284.

    Chou R, Deyo R, Friedly J, et al. Nonpharmacologic therapies for low back pain: a systematic review for an American College of Physicians clinical practice guideline. Ann Intern Med. 2017; 166(7):493-505.

    Cramer H, Klose P, Brinkhaus B, et al. Effects of yoga on chronic neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Rehabilitation. 2017;31(11):1457-1465.

    De Silva V, El-Metwally A, Ernst E, et al. Evidence for the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines in the management of fibromyalgia: a systematic review. Rheumatology. 2010;49(6):1063–1068.

    Evans S, Moieni M, Taub R, et al. Iyengar yoga for young adults with rheumatoid arthritis: results from a mixed–methods pilot study. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 2010;39(5):904–913.

    Furlan AD, Yazdi F, Tsertsvadze A, et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of efficacy, cost-effectiveness, and safety of selected complementary and alternative medicine for neck and low-back pain. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012;2012:953139.

    Furlan AD, Yazdi F, Tsertsvadze A, et al. Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Back Pain II. AHRQ Publication No. 10(11)–E007, October 2010.

    Kim S-D. Effects of yoga exercises for headaches: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2015;27(7):2377-2380. 

    Macfarlane GJ, Kronish C, Dean LE, et al. EULAR revised recommendations for the management of fibromyalgia. Ann Rheum Dis. 2017;76(2):318-328.

    Nahin RL, Boineau R, Khalsa PS, et al. Evidence-based evaluation of complementary health approaches for pain management in the United States. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. September 2016;91(9):1292-1306.

    Nahin RL, Boineau R, Khalsa PS, et al. Evidence-based evaluation of complementary health approaches for pain management in the United States. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. September 2016;91(9):1292-1306.

    Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, McLean RM, et al. Noninvasive treatments for acute, subacute, and chronic low back pain: a clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2017;166(7):514-530.

    Skelly AC, Chou R, Dettori JR, et al. Noninvasive Nonpharmacological Treatment for Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review. Copmparative Effectiveness Review no. 209. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; 2018. AHRQ publication no. 18-EHC013-EF.

    Theadom A, Cropley M, Smith HE, et al. Mind and body therapy for fibromyalgia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev.  2015;4:CD001980.

    Wang Y, Lu S, Wang R, et al. Integrative effect of yoga practice in patients with knee arthritis: A PRISMA-compliant meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2018; 97(31):e11742.

NCCIH Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, DHHS. NCCIH Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on complementary health approaches, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCIH-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is dedicated to exploring complementary health products and practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary health researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCIH's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCIH Web site at NCCIH is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.


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This page last modified September 13, 2018