Yoga can help ease back pain and functioning, new research suggests, but there isn’t yet sufficient evidence to determine whether it’s more or less effective than, or altogether different from, other forms of back therapy exercises.“Patients should know that there is a risk with yoga of adverse events, such as increased back pain, although the risk does not appear to be any greater than that seen with other types of back therapy exercises,” says L. Susan Wieland, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Dr. Wieland is lead author of the new Cochrane review, “Yoga treatment for chronic non-specific low back pain,” which drew upon 12 trials (seven in the United States, three in India, and two in the UK) with 1,080 participants.The review reveals small to moderate benefits for back function and small advantages for pain, and there is little information about long-term effects of yoga on back pain and function.“Given all this, we think that if patients have an interest in trying yoga, and they have access to a program that is designed for treatment of back pain and taught by experienced teachers, they should feel encouraged that it may be an option worth exploring,” Dr. Wieland says.Several randomized trials starting in 2004 studied yoga and low back pain. Dr. Wieland and colleagues gathered, evaluated, and summarized the studies and the current evidence. They also offer advice on future research needs.

“There have been other systematic reviews in the past, but Cochrane reviews are very thorough in looking for the evidence, assessing it, and then updating the review with additional evidence as it becomes available,” she says. Currently, there is very limited evidence about yoga outcomes beyond six month periods, about how yoga compares to other exercise programs, and about how yoga impacts quality of life and emotional well-being, according to Dr. Wieland.This review comes amid broader interest in yoga’s health effects. In 2014, Holger Cramer, Romy Lauche, and Gustav Dobos examined more than 300 yoga studies in “Characteristics of randomized controlled trials of yoga: a bibliometric analysis” in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Many trials have indicated that there may be health benefits to yoga, but there is still quite a bit of uncertainty,” Dr. Wieland says.

One survey found that more than 21 million American adults did yoga in 2011, and nearly a fifth used yoga to ease back pain, according to a Medscape article.One remaining question, however, is who is most likely to benefit from yoga. “Our study doesn’t really address this,” Dr. Wieland says. “I would say that one of the remaining uncertainties.”