Teaching people with chronic back pain how to improve their posture and co-ordination offers relief that lasts for more than a year, British researchers have found.

The study of 579 patients looked at a combination of care from a family doctor, massage and lessons on the Alexander technique, in which patients are shown how to improve their posture and muscle co-ordination while sitting, standing and walking.

In Wednesday's issue of the British Medical Journal, Prof. Debbie Sharp of the University of Bristol and her colleagues reported that patients trained on the Alexander technique suffered fewer days of back pain.

After one year, the Alexander patients suffered an average of three days of back pain a month, compared with 21 days for those who went to their doctor regularly, in some cases for pain killers and exercise lessons. Those in the massage group experienced an average of 14 days of back pain a month.

Participants who received the Alexander technique lessons also reported improved quality of life, such as the ability to walk at a normal pace. 

"Our study shows enduring benefits from lessons delivered by many different teachers," the study's authors concluded.

Having six individualized lessons in the Alexander technique followed by exercise showed nearly as much benefit as 24 lessons in the technique alone, which suggests the long-term benefits are unlikely to result from placebo effects of attention and touch, the researchers said.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Prof. Maurits van Tulder from VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, called for more research to compare the Alexander technique with different types of exercise.

It's estimated four out of five Canadians will experience back pain at some point in their lives, and it is a common reason for sick leaves.

The Alexander technique was originally developed at the end of the 19th century by the Shakespearean actor Frederick Alexander, who discovered he was losing his voice because he was stiffening his body before speaking.