The Benefits of Yoga in the Management of Arthritis
By Lubna Sheikh on 19th June 2019
Whilst it is very common, arthritis is often not fully understood. The term ‘arthritis’ is commonly used to refer to joint pain or joint disease.
In fact, there are in excess of 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions.
It can be a seemingly indiscriminate condition, affecting people of all ages, sexes and races.
In the UK, more than 10 million people suffer from arthritis, including children.
Symptoms of arthritis include swelling around the joint, pain, stiffness, and a reduction in the range of motion.
Whilst symptoms of arthritis may come and go, they can be mild, moderate or severe. It is a condition that may stay about the same sometimes, but over time it may progress.
At worst, arthritis can result in chronic pain, inability to do daily activities and make walking or climbing stairs extremely difficult.
Often, arthritis can cause permanent damage to the affected joints.
These changes may be visible, such as knobby finger joints, but often the changes in bone structures can only be seen on X-ray.
Less common forms of arthritis can additionally affect the heart, eyes, lungs, kidneys and skin, as well as the joints.
When the joint symptoms of osteoarthritis are mild or moderate, they can be managed by:
- Finding a balance between activity and rest
- Treating pain with heat and cold therapies
- Partaking in regular physical exercise
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Strengthening muscles around joints so they can help to support the area affected
- Using over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medicines
- Avoiding excessive repetitive movements
Osteoarthritis can be prevented or alleviated by staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding injury and repetitive movements.
However, as a last resort, joint replacement is sometimes necessary.
Why choose yoga?
Practising yoga regularly can reduce pain, increase flexibility, improve function and lower stress.
Yoga, originating from India some 5000 years ago, is the practice of exercises, breathing techniques and meditation.
But can yoga really work to improve physical symptoms of arthritis like pain and stiffness, or even the psychological issues it can cause, such as stress and anxiety?
The answer is undeniably yes.
In fact, yoga has been shown to improve many of the physical and psychological symptoms of arthritis for those individuals who suffer from what can be a debilitating condition.
Scientific studies of people with various types of arthritis have recently shown that regular yoga practice can help to significantly reduce joint pain, improve joint flexibility and function and subsequently lower stress and tension thereby promoting better sleep and the benefits that come with it.
One such study was conducted by Sharon Kolasinski, MD, a Rheumatologist and Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
She studied the effects of yoga on a group of individuals with knee osteoarthritis (OA).
She found that those who took a 90-minute, modified Lyengar yoga class once a week for eight weeks reported a significant reduction in pain as well as improvements in physical function and evident improvements in joint stiffness.
Yoga poses were modified to accommodate the fact that people with knee osteoarthritis may not be able to bend their joints as far as others, and Iyengar yoga allows participants to use chairs, blocks and other aids to assist them with balance during poses.
Dr. Kolasinski states that “Yoga is definitely one option for people with arthritis. Not only for the exercise benefits, but it’s also beneficial in the mind/body area, promoting relaxation and stress reduction,”
There are many different forms of yoga, but these generally involve finding and maintaining the body in various poses along with coordinated breathing and meditation exercises.
Many people are turning to yoga as a form of gentle exercise, as well as a way reducing tension and improving joint flexibility.
It helps sufferers build muscle strength and improve balance.
Furthermore, yoga offers a form of exercise that is enjoyable enough to do regularly.
Dr Kolasinski adds, “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 healthy regimen that may also include cardiovascular exercises like walking, or a low-fat diet.”
Overall, studies have shown promising results with some improvements in joint health, as well as mental and emotional wellbeing.
This gentle yet effective form of exercise is clearly improving quality of life for patients.
Those with arthritis seem to enjoy more gentle forms of exercise and so they are more likely to continue to practise.
Exercise enjoyment is an important predictor of adherence; it is considered that approximately 50% of sedentary individuals drop out of an exercise routine within 6 months.
A review of yoga studies has discovered that risk of injury is seen to be low if practiced under the direction of certified Yoga teachers who are aware of the individual’s condition and physical limitations.
Yoga Poses to help with arthritis
1. Sun Salutations
Sun Salutations are a great way to energize the body. They are easy to do, and with a few changes, they are accessible to everyone.
This series of movements improves blood circulation, helps eliminate toxins, and strengthens the body.
As well as muscles and joints, the lungs and digestive system all benefit from practicing these moves. A series of Sun Salutations can be a pleasant cardiovascular exercise benefitting the whole body.
The continued practice of Sun Salutations brings increased strength, flexibility, and tone to the body. It opens the hamstrings, shoulders, and chest as well as releasing tension.
Moving through the poses, you are also lubricating joints, in turn aiding in keeping the full range of motion in the body.
Sun Salutations offer a great release of tension on the spine, which creates length and increases flexibility. Forward Bends and the slight back bend of Cobra Pose helps to create space into areas of tightness. The health of the spine is especially important to our overall wellbeing.
2. Child’s Pose/Balasana
This pose helps stretch the hips, thighs, and ankles whilst also reducing stress and fatigue. While it gently relaxes the muscles on the front of the body, Child’s Pose also soothingly stretches the muscles of the back torso.
This resting pose quietens and pacifies the brain, making it a beneficial posture for relieving stress. When performed with the head and torso supported, it can also help relieve back and neck pain.
3. Cat Pose/ Marjaryasana
Cat Pose is a gentle backbend that loosens up the spine, stretches the back of the torso, and releases tension in the neck.
Additionally, it softly stimulates and strengthens the abdominal organs. It also opens the chest, encouraging the breath to become slow and deep bringing a sense of relaxation.
The spinal movement of the two poses stimulates the kidneys and adrenal glands. Coordinating this movement with your breathing relieves stress and calms the mind.
This sequence also helps to develop postural awareness and balance throughout the body. It brings the spine into correct alignment and can help prevent back pain when practiced regularly.
4. Supine Twist
This particular yoga pose has calming effect on both the body and mind. A Supine Twist also helps to release the tensions and emotions that we carry in our back body, especially the shoulders.
When we worry, we tend to close our chest and round our back. It can stimulate and release the tightness of the back-body muscles and also opens up the chest area.
The way in which the tension is released from the body with this pose can be particularly beneficial if this is the area affected by arthritis.
5. Bridge Pose
Bridge Pose is the perfect pose for opening the chest, heart, and shoulders. It helps to stretch out the spine, the back of the neck, the thighs, and the hip joints (hip flexors).
Because your heart is higher than your head in this pose, it is considered a mild inversion (less strenuous than other inversions, such as Headstand) and holds all the benefits of inversions: Relief from stress, fatigue, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, and mild depression.
This is also a great pose for anyone who spends the day sitting in front of a computer or driving.
6. Downward Facing Dog
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) has a variety health benefits and is most likely one of the most commonly practiced and most iconic yoga postures.
This is a great posture for opening the backs of the legs because you have gravity to help you. Therefore, it is quite easy to keep your spine in a beneficial position in this stretch.
Downward Dog maintains the length of the spine, which is not always so easy with other poses such as seated forward folds. With this pose, you get that opening without compromising other areas of your body.
This pose creates traction from your feet being planted and by then pushing your hands strongly into the mat. It is quite possibly one of the best spinal elongation tools yoga has to offer.
7. Anjaneyesana/Crescent Lunge
There are some amazing benefits of Anjaneyasana or Crescent Lunge (so called because of the crescent shape formed by the body). It strengthens the gluteus and quadriceps.
This pose stretches hip flexors, as well as opening up your shoulders, lungs and chest. Crescent pose improves balance and builds core awareness.
This stretch can relieve sciatica and if practised regularly will tone and energise your body.
8. Pelvic Lift
This pose is particularly good for alleviating lower back stress and improving posture, which can be negatively impacted in a day and age when we spend so much time sitting at a desk or driving.
The pelvic floor is an extensive sling of muscles, ligaments and tissue that stretch from your pubic bone to the base of your spine. The pelvic floor is resistant to stretch and weight as it bounces back, although after carrying weight for long periods of time, it can become strained.
Over time, the pelvic floor can weaken its resistance and lose its shape over time.
Performing Pelvic Life pose regularly can strengthen core muscles, needed to support our joints; glutes, abs, and lower back muscles.
Doctors will sometimes recommend pelvic lifts to reduce lower back pain, improve posture, and improve bladder control.
A word of caution
As with any exercise, it is imperative that you speak with a medical professional before you start.
If you decide to try yoga as a way of managing your arthritis symptoms, ensure that you choose a teacher who can adapt poses to suit you and any physical limitations you might have.
About the author of this article
My name is Lubna and I am a Holistic Food Coach, Natural Chef, Massage Specialist & Yoga teacher. I am passionate about your health and well-being. Now, health and well-being is my life! I practice yoga every morning. I attend and support my community fitness centre and I have recently learned how to swim.