Yoga, which comprises of physical exercises, breathing techniques, and meditation, is said to improve physical arthritis symptoms like pain, stiffness, and psychological issues like stress and anxiety.
Several hundred scientific trials have been published on yoga in major medical journals including a controlled trial from a specific group. Other studies have shown similar results confirming that yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity that also has important psychological benefits due to its meditative nature. Yoga is also associated with increased energy and fewer bodily aches and pains. It is associated with improved anxiety, depression, and psychological stress.
Yoga as an essential part of treatment
According to treatment guidelines published by the American College of Rheumatology, physical activity is an essential part of the effective treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). For patients with osteoarthritis, exercise is safe and does not worsen the disease. In fact, exercise may play a key role in promoting joint health. The health and psychological benefits of exercise are also widely recognized. However, regular physical activity is especially important for people with arthritis, who often have decreased muscle strength, physical energy, and endurance, in part due to their arthritis and the tendency to be sedentary. Being sedentary can begin a downward spiral where pain increases, leading to more inactivity which leads to greater pain and disability. The psychological benefits of exercise such as stress reduction, fewer depressive symptoms, improved coping and well-being and enhanced immune functioning also contribute to greater overall health. Below are the other benefits of yoga.
Yoga improves overall well-being
Early studies showed promising results with some improvement in joint health, physical functioning, and mental/emotional well-being. Yoga has an important positive effect on the quality of life. People with arthritis may also enjoy yoga more than traditional forms of exercise, and exercise enjoyment is an important predictor of adherence.
There was a recently published article about the result of a clinical trial of yoga conducted in the John Hopkins Arthritis Center. This was a large, rigorously conducted, randomized, controlled trial of yoga designed and conducted by health professionals including experts in rheumatology, psychology, public health, and yoga therapy. The study provided critical evidence showing that for people with arthritis who are sedentary, yoga appears to be safe, feasible, and enjoyable, especially for people with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Importantly, almost all the benefits that we saw in patients after they completed an 8-week program were still evident 9 months later including walking speed and physical function.
Yoga has a behavioral impact
Improvements in positive affect perceived stress and pain were also noted. Our same yoga program was used in a follow-up study which also found improvements in balance, functional reach, upper body function, and pain after completing the intervention. Participants from this clinical trial communicate back to us that they continue to practice yoga, now almost a decade later.
Yoga provides a meaningful and enjoyable experience
It can also be a meaningful and enjoyable alternative to traditional forms of exercise such as aerobics or aquatic exercise with important health benefits. Yoga can play an important role in reducing stress and frustration that results from pain and disability and increasing positive feelings and wellbeing. Drug treatments for OA and RA have improved markedly in the last few years. Despite this, arthritis cannot be cured, and even the best medications and medical care can only help so much. There is a great need for additional activities patients can do to reduce pain, disability, and take control of the overall impact arthritis may have on their lives. Thus, the evidence suggests that, when combined with a program of good medical care, yoga may provide important additional physical and psychological health benefits for arthritis patients. Anecdotally, many participants in our research study still practice yoga many years later and consider it to be an important part of their lifestyle and disease management.
Subhadra Evans, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, agrees. After conducting a small study of the effects of six weeks of Iyengar yoga on a group of women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Evans was impressed by yoga’s immediate, positive impact on people with a serious chronic disease. “I was surprised by how strong those results were,” she says. Participants filled out questionnaires to measure pain, disability, mood, function, and other symptoms, and also sat down for personal interviews with the researchers to gauge their feelings about the yoga program and its effects on their RA. “They all said that day-to-day levels of pain hadn’t changed, but their relationship to the pain had changed. They were able to get through daily activities much more effectively, and had much more energy,” Evans says. “I think if we had had them do yoga longer, we may have seen more significant changes in pain and other symptoms.”
Yoga Improves Muscular Strength
Dr. Kolasinski adds that yoga also can help a person with arthritis build muscle strength and improve balance. In addition, yoga offers people with arthritis a form of exercise that is enjoyable enough to do regularly.
“There is no question that people are not exercising enough. Yoga provides an exercise option. It’s not the only thing you do, but it is a component of an overall health regimen that may also include cardiovascular exercises like walking, or a low-fat diet.”
According to Dr. Kolasinski’s research, people with arthritis who practice yoga regularly will eventually see improved physical function. “Admittedly, these are small studies, but I think yoga can enhance pain management, thereby improving function,” she says.
Yoga has other benefits for people with stiff joints due to arthritis. “Stretching exercises in general help improve range of motion, so the fact that you’re stretching in yoga will help flexibility.”
On days when you’re experiencing a painful arthritis flare, continuing to do some type of physical activity like yoga, if possible, can help you maintain joint flexibility. “To the extent that you can continue to exercise, you should,” she says. “However, don’t overtax your joint that’s flaring.”
In summary, yoga has its benefits – both physical, emotional, and in a person’s general well-being. However, if you plan on starting a yoga regimen, speak to your rheumatologist or primary-care physician to ensure that yoga is right for you. Learn to communicate with your body to yoga.