In 2008, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published the results of a large, well-designed clinical trial that evaluated the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique compared with other health interventions for chronic low back pain.1
After one year, individuals with back pain who had undertaken Alexander lessons had only three days of pain per month compared with 21 days for similar patients who were receiving the usual standard-of-care from their GP.1
What the trial did
A total of 579 people with chronic or recurrent low back pain were randomised to one of the following groups:
- usual care from their GP
- six sessions of therapeutic massage
- 6 Alexander Technique lessons
- 24 Alexander Technique lessons
Half of each group were also randomised to GP-prescribed aerobic exercise (30 minutes of brisk walking five times a week, or the equivalent).
At the beginning of the study (before any of the above began) all participants completed an evaluation to describe their level of pain, ability to carry out daily tasks, and quality of life. These evaluations were repeated at three months and at one year after the beginning of the study.
After one year, people who had undertaken Alexander lessons had significantly less back pain, less incapacity, and a better quality of life compared to those who received the usual GP care.
The group who did best were those who had 24 Alexander lessons. The graph below shows the amount of back pain in this group had after one year, compared with those who had received either usual GP care or therapeutic massage:
In addition to having less pain, those who had taken 24 Alexander lessons were able to carry out at least three more types of common daily tasks without limitation from back pain than those in the usual GP care group; they also had a significantly better quality of life.
The group who had taken six Alexander lessons also experienced significant benefits in back pain incapacity and quality of life compared with those who received usual GP care, particularly if they also took regular exercise. The level of benefit (in terms of pain and incapacity) of six Alexander lessons compared with 24 lessons was just under 50%, but this increased to just under 70% when combined with exercise.
In comparison, the group who received the group who received therapeutic massage initially experienced a significant reduction in incapacity compared with the usual GP care group, but this benefit had been lost by one year. While back pain was significantly reduced at both three months and one year in the massage group, the level of benefit decreased during this time.
Exercise on its own did not make a significant impact at one year compared with the usual GP care. However, looking at the overall effect of exercise (ie whether combined with usual GP care, Alexander Technique or massage) it did provide benefit, with a significant reduction in incapacity at three months and one year. Similarly, pain was significantly reduced at three months, but this benefit was, however, lost by one year.
- Lessons in the Alexander Technique lead to significantly reduced pain and incapacity, and improved quality of life in individuals with chronic or recurrent back pain.
- Most benefit was provided by 24 Alexander lessons. After one year, compared with usual GP care, 24 lessons led to:
- 86% reduction in number days in pain
- ability to carry out on average three more types of daily task without limitation from back pain
- significantly improved quality of life
- Six Alexander lessons also gave benefit, particularly when followed by exercise, but were not as effective as 24 lessons (either with or without exercise).
- Little P, Lewith G, Webley F, et al. Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. British Medical Journal 2008; 337:a884
*I would like to thank Julia Woodman BSc, PhD, MSTAT for her kind permission to reproduce her summary of the back pain trial. Julia is an Alexander Technique teacher based in Cheshire. You can visit her website here.