Yoga can make people with arthritis feel better both physically and mentally, according to a study of patients who suffer from knee osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis—two common forms of the disease.
Arthritis, a painful inflammation and stiffening of the joints, is a leading cause of disability, affecting one in five adults, most younger than 65. There is no cure, but one important way to manage arthritis is to remain active, researchers say. Yet up to 90 percent of arthritis patients are less active than guidelines suggest, perhaps due to pain and stiffness, but also because they are unsure of the best way to do so.
“Yoga may be especially well-suited to people with arthritis,” said Susan J. Bartlett, adjunct associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and associate professor at McGill University. “It combines physical activity with potent stress management and relaxation techniques, and focuses on respecting limitations that can change from day to day.”
Published in the Journal of Rheumatology, the study included 75 patients randomly assigned to either a wait list or to eight weeks of twice-weekly yoga classes plus a weekly practice session at home. Participants’ physical and mental well-being was assessed before and after the study by researchers who did not know to which group participants had been assigned.
Compared with the control group, those doing yoga reported a 20 percent reduction of pain, as well as a 20 percent improvement in energy levels, mood, and physical function, including their ability to complete physical tasks at work and home.
Walking speed improved to a smaller extent; there was little difference between the groups in tests of balance and upper body strength. Improvements in those who completed the yoga classes was still apparent in follow-up assessments nine months later.
Clifton O. Bingham, director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, said the idea for the study grew out of his experiences treating patients. “I was watching what happened with my patients and the changes in their lives as a result of practicing yoga that got me interested in the first place.”
“For people with other conditions, yoga has been shown to improve pain, pain-related disability, and mood,” Bingham said. “But there were no well-controlled trials of yoga that could tell us if it was safe and effective for people with arthritis, and many health professionals have concerns about how yoga might affect vulnerable joints, given the emphasis on changing positions and on being flexible.”
Classes were taught by experienced yoga therapists with additional training to modify poses to accommodate individual abilities. Participants were screened by their doctors prior to joining the study; they continued to take their regular arthritis medications.
The researchers have developed a checklist to make it easier for doctors to safely recommend yoga to their patients. People with arthritis who are considering yoga should “talk with their doctors about what specific joints are of concern, and about modifications to poses,” Bingham says.
“Find a teacher who asks the right questions about limitations and works closely with you as an individual. Start with gentle yoga classes. Practice acceptance of where you are and what your body can do on any given day.”
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, and the Arthritis Foundation funded the work.