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Pushing yoga for treating back pain

MED doctor wins grant to study effectiveness in low-income populations

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded a School of Medicine doctor $625,000 over five years to develop clinical research skills in alternative medicine. Robert Saper aims to heal the aching backs of underserved populations.

“Chronic lower back pain is very prevalent in our society," says Saper, director of integrative medicine in the family medicine department at MED. "It takes a huge toll on the cost of disability, and there are relatively few treatments for it.” He will investigate the effectiveness of yoga for back pain in low-income minorities.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of NIH, established the grant program to help new researchers in the field of complementary and alternative medicine hone their investigative and academic leadership skills and develop curricula.

Saper says his job as a researcher is to discover which alternative treatments work and should be incorporated into traditional medicine, and which ones do not. The traditional treatments for back pain include medication, physical therapy, injection and surgery. He chose to focus on yoga for undeserved populations because it could be easy to administer.

“If yoga is found to be helpful for this condition, it may be promising. It’s relatively inexpensive, can be taught in a group, and may have other benefits,” such as relief from other pain or depression, he says.

For the study, Saper is recruiting 30 patients through Boston Medical Center clinics. Half will practice yoga for three months and the other half will not. A yoga expert has designed a program targeted for this population that is specifically aimed at relieving lower back pain, Saper says. The study will measure the pain level for all the subjects.

When alternative therapies are proven to be effective, it’s important that they are made available to everyone, Saper says, without regard to income, race or geographic location.

He is also studying alternative therapies to help pregnant women quit smoking and is investigating high metal contents of some Ayurvedic medicines.