The Upcoming Epidemic of Disability—Can Yoga Help?

By: 
Lorie Parch

Not too long ago, the health problems causing the majority of illness and death in the Western world were issues like malnutrition, injuries and accidents, infectious diseases like malaria, polio, and the flu, and complications of pregnancy and delivery.

Thanks to incredible advances in public health, many of these devastating issues are, thankfully, on the decline, and some are very close to being eradicated. Unfortunately, other health-stealers have taken their place.

"Since 1970, men and women worldwide have gained slightly more than 10 years of life expectancy overall, but they spend more years living with injury and illness," the medical journal The Lancet reported in late 2012. And of course, no one wants to add more time on the planet if those extra years are spent in pain or immobilized in a hospital or nursing home.

It is well known that heart disease, diabetes and cancer have replaced many of the scourges of yesterday. But there's one more set of disorders that may not kill us, but can cost years of healthy, vibrant life as we age: Musculoskeletal disorders.

According to that same article in the Lancet, musuloskeletal disorders—including arthritis, back pain, and osteoporosis—have increased by 45 percent over the last 20 years. In fact, with millions of Baby Boomers already of retirement age and many more on their way, the size of the problem musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) could rapidly become untenable.

In the "Global Burden of Disease Study" musculoskeletal disorders were the second biggest cause of disability in the world, affecting over 1.7 billion people globally.

Over 30 percent of Americans visit a doctor because of a musculoskeletal disease, and in 2004 alone, back pain accounted for more than 53 million visits to the doctor. Nearly 23 percent of U.S. adults have arthritis—that's 52.5 million people—and about 43 percent of those had some limitation on their activity because of the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In fact, as people over 60 begin to make up a larger and larger percentage of the population, some doctors are predicting an epidemic of disability caused by musculoskeletal disorders.

A Greater Problem than Cancer

It is sobering statistics like this that have led to the creation of the United States Bone and Joint Initiative (USBJI). The USBJI is part of a larger worldwide effort, the International Bone and Joint Decade, which aims to raise the profile of MSD as a public health issue and to focus on prevention and treatment strategies that will improve quality of life.

"We're a national action network made up of 100 organizations that work in musculoskeletal disorders," explains Steve M. Gnatz, M.D., MHA, president of the USBJI and director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Loyola University Medical Center, in Chicago. "Our main goal is to reduce the burden of these disorders."

Says Dr. Gnatz, "Cancer gets a lot more attention at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), even though we're the number-one disabling condition for adults. We get less than one percent of the recent budget at the NIH."

Awareness is desperately needed. Most of us, after all, are used to getting a mammogram or prostate exam, or having our blood glucose or cholesterol checked. But we don't tend to worry or talk about arthritis, osteoporosis, or even back pain in the same way; too often, these disorders are considered painful, but survivable, conditions we mostly learn to live with.

"Musculoskeletal disorders are one of the main disabling conditions, especially for people in middle age," notes Dr. Gnatz. "We'd like to get the word out that you can do things about it, by being fit and participating in activities like yoga."

In fact, Dr. Gnatz says the role that prevention can play in these problems is significant. He points to medical literature on the topic, which has found that one of the first signs of a musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis is a loss of range of motion.

Yoga Plays a Strong Preventative Role

"It's tremendously important to maintain flexibility, joint health, and the health of bones to do weight-bearing exercise and exercise that maintains or increases flexibility," he says, noting that he's likely to steer his patients toward activities like biking and swimming, which are easier on the joints. "Activities like yoga that really work on flexibility are tremendously important," adds Dr. Gnatz. "The other thing that yoga has is the mind-body connection ...That helps people's overall outlook and positivity." (See YogaUOnline story on yoga and arthritis.)

And for people who've not yet developed one of this common conditions, the USBJI would love to see more Americans escape their grasp, or at least delay their onset. Here are some preventive measures that may help you avoid back pain, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and a number of other musculoskeletal problems:

  • Engage in regular exercise to help maintain both strength and flexibility. Yoga is particularly useful for maintaining flexibility and balance as you get older. Ensure a mix of strength-training (weight-bearing exercises) and cardio/aerobic training in your workouts; these are also important to for bone, joint, and overall health.

  • Eat a healthy diet, choosing foods that are high in calcium and vitamin D.

  • Stop smoking.

  • Stay at a healthy weight, or do your best to reach one if you're overweight or obese.

  • Adopt a healthy posture.

  • Make your work space as ergonomic as possible so your feet, back, hands/wrists/arms, and head and neck aren't straining as you work. The American Osteopathic Association suggests using a lumbar support when sitting (put it at waist level behind you); placing feet flat on the floor at a 90-degree angle; and adjusting the computer monitor so the middle of it is at eye level. The keyboard should be just above your lap and your arms should be a 90-degree angle or slightly lower.

Lorie A. Parch is a veteran health reporter living in Los Angeles. She's a National Magazine Award finalist and a Knight Journalism Fellow (CDC). Lorie completed a yoga teacher training program in 2005 and has written for Yoga Journal, Shape, Self, Fitness, Women's Health, and many other national magazines and leading websites and is the founder of ih8exercise.com.