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Research Review Highlights Yoga's Benefits for Arthritis, Back Pain and Other Pain Conditions
A great deal of yoga research has focused on pain syndromes including arthritis, neck and back pain, headaches, and the underlying mechanisms of pain reduction in yoga. According to a comprehensive review of yoga research published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, there is much more to be learned, but initial findings are cause for optimism.
Yoga for Arthritis
Roughly 21% of American adults suffer from some form of arthritis, making it one of the leading causes of chronic pain and disability. In a systematic review studies in which yoga was used to relieve the pain of arthritis, 6 of 9 studies reported positive physiological and psychological outcomes. Another recent review of 12 trials involving 589 participants found that regular yoga practice was associated with decreased pain, stiffness and swelling. Unfortunately, these studies were hampered by a high degree of variability in approach, dosage, and inconsistent measurement.
Similarly, randomized controlled trials in which yoga was used to alleviate the pain of osteoarthritis in the knee have shown larger improvements in walking pain, knee disability, joint tenderness, swelling and crepitus, as well as greater range of motion when compared to therapeutic exercises or a combination of transcutaneous stimulation and ultrasound treatment.
A randomized controlled trial examining the long-term effects of yoga for those with rheumatoid arthritis, likewise found that those in the yoga group outperformed waitlist controls on measured of walking, flexibility and quality of life following 8 weeks of twice weekly, 60 minute classes, as well as 9 months later. More high-quality studies will be needed to better understand why and how interventions that incorporate yogic movements can benefit individuals with arthritic conditions.
Yoga for Relieving Neck Pain and Headaches
Chronic neck pain is also a debilitating condition that affects millions of adults worldwide. In a study comparing Pilates and yoga groups following 12 sessions, researchers found that both were comparable in decreasing disability and pain. These studies used postural modifications to assure the safety of participants, meaning that the approach varied by individual, which makes it difficult to ascertain how these benefits were achieved.
There is also some preliminary evidence that regular yoga practice may help to alleviate chronic migraine pain. In one randomized controlled study, individuals were assigned to either a medication or a medication plus yoga group. Those receiving yoga training reported significant declines in headache frequency and severity compared to controls. Correspondingly, declines in reported headache intensity and frequency were more pronounced in yoga participants in a study evaluating the difference between conventional care and conventional care plus yoga. The yoga group also evidenced an increase in vagal tone, and a decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity – both indicators of reduced physiological stress.
Yoga for Low Back Pain
The lifetime prevalence of low back pain in industrialized countries is estimated at 60% to 70% of the population, making it one of the most pervasive forms of chronic pain. A global study of over 290 physical conditions ranked low back pain as the number one cause of disability. As a result, researchers are beginning to pay greater attention to it as a target of yoga intervention.
Results of a 2013 meta-analysis of yoga for low back pain found that individuals who participate in regular yoga practice show significant reductions in short- and long-term low back pain, and back pain-specific disability compared to controls. Similarly, a 2011 meta-analysis found that yoga is beneficial for those suffering from chronic low back pain.
In a randomized controlled study, adults with chronic low back pain were trained in 29 different Iyengar yoga poses. Their pain ratings were then compared to a conventional exercise group. Iyengar poses were held for lengthy periods to assure that they would be equivalent to exercise in their intensity. Both groups showed significant declines in pain and increases in self-reported quality of life, however, the yoga group indicated nearly 2 times more pain reduction than the exercise group controls.
Overall, while there still is more to learn via high quality yoga studies, this review suggests that a regular yoga practice can offer significant benefits for for people struggling with arthritis, back or neck pain, and even headaches.
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success - Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and well-being and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is also the Founding Director and Principal Consultant of the International Science & Education Alliance, an organization devoted to exceptional research, program evaluation, assessment design, strategic planning and capacity building to support equity, programmatic diversity and scientific integrity, and promote effective leadership, decision-making and social change. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com.
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