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Yoga May Aid in Treatment of Stroke, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and More, Research Review Finds
Neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s impact millions world-wide. A recent review published in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience finds that yoga may be an effective adjunctive treatment.
Yoga and other mind-body therapies are unique in that they combine breathing exercises with movement and meditation. Emerging research finds that these practices may impact brain structures and neural networks, as well as the autonomic nervous system, which projects throughout the body. This integration of brain and body systems may be particularly beneficial for those coping with neurological disorders.
In the review, researchers examined all of the clinical and controlled trails, and systematic reviews and meta-analyses published up until December 2016. They identified 94 articles in which yoga was used as a primary or adjunct therapy for a variety of neurological disorders (e.g. stroke, Parkinson’s disease, MS, dementia). These articles provided varying degrees of support for the use of yoga in conjunction with traditional therapies in easing the symptoms of neurological disorders.
Yoga for Stroke Rehabilitation
Stroke is one of the leading causes of adult-onset physical and cognitive disability, and a significant cost burden due to the need for extensive, lengthy rehabilitation. Some major concerns post-stroke include stress-related medical conditions, loss of balance control, and decreased strength, and functional mobility.
Previous studies show that individuals recovering from stroke who attended 8 weeks of bi-weekly yoga rehabilitation demonstrated significant improvements in balance, decreased fear of falling, greater physical strength, walking ability and range of motion, and less pain. Single studies find that yoga may also be linked to improved manual dexterity, speech production, and visual attention.
In addition to these physical benefits, yoga participants also reported increased positive mood and quality of life. The evidence to date indicates that yoga is feasible, safe, and acceptable.
Yoga for Parkinson’s Disease (PD)
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is now the second most common neurodegenerative disorder. The disease is caused by a loss of dopaminergic neurons in the brain, which leads to a progressive loss of muscle control, increased disability, and cognitive and psychological challenges.
One of the hallmarks of PD is postural instability and poor balance control that result from a combination of muscle rigidity, and reduced flexibility, muscle tone, and motor control. Mood disorders like anxiety and depression are also common.
Given its increased prevalence, more research is being conducted to assess the effects of yoga on PD symptoms. Controlled trials and case studies suggest that consistent yoga practice is associated with improvements across a number of domains including tremor reduction, improved muscle strength, balance, posture, flexibility, and functional mobility, better cardiac health, and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although the evidence is limited, yoga holds promise for those with mild to moderate PD symptoms.
Yoga for Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and Dementia
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia in the elderly, and is caused primarily by a loss of neurons in the brain’s memory centers and networks. The hallmark of AD is a progressive loss of memory and cognitive function, difficulties with reasoning and speech production, and apathy and delusions.
A single study in which adults participated in an 8-week, chair yoga program showed improvements across multiple domains of physical function including gait speed/walking proficiency, and balance. Another investigation during which adults were asked to perform 10 minutes of chanting followed by 10 minutes of breathing exercises (thirumoolar pranayama), found a potential increase in nerve growth factor (an agent that may be related to limiting age-related decline in brain function) following regular practice.
Adults with dementia have similar physical and psychological concerns to those with AD. Mounting evidence suggests that yoga interventions for elderly adults with dementia may improve cardiovascular and respiratory fitness, and enhance physical strength, flexibility, range of motion, balance, and mental health. Studies that combine mind-body modalities including yoga, tai chi, Feldenkrais, and dance find beneficial increases in body awareness and movement, as well as improved memory, cognitive function and emotional health.
Research has also focused on the ability of yoga and mind-body practices to reduce life stress in those caring for elders with dementia. Interventions the incorporate yoga and meditation are reported to lead to significant reductions in caregiver depression, stress, anxiety, and poor life satisfaction, and improvements in self-efficacy and cognitive functioning. What’s more examination of several stress-related biomarkers in caregivers suggest that regular practice may be linked to less inflammation, and improved cellular immunity.
Yoga for Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
MS is the most prevalent autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, typically beginning between the ages of 20 and 40 years, and impacting more women than men. The approximately 2.3 million individuals with MS experience a broad range of symptoms of varying severity including fatigue, chronic pain, limited mobility, poor balance control, cognitive, auditory, visual and speech impairments, and depression and anxiety.
Similar to many neurological disorders, the cause of MS is not fully understood, and a cure remains elusive. MS has, however, received considerable attention from yoga researchers. A number of studies suggest that regular yoga practice may be linked to greater muscular strength and tone, improved endurance, balance, body-awareness, functional mobility, lung capacity, and blood pressure, and energy level. Psychological benefits including reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression, and increased mood, confidence, social functioning, self-efficacy, self-motivation, and quality of life have also been reported.
In addition to its physical and psychological effectiveness, studies find that yoga interventions are generally feasible, cost-effective, safe, and accessible for those with MS who have mild-to-moderate disability, and those who have difficulty maintaining regular physical exercise routines. It is likely because yoga postures can be tailored and modified to meet individual’s needs.
Yoga for Epilepsy
Epilepsy is a seizure disorder that is highly variable in its frequency and intensity. Regardless of its presentation, the primary goal of epilepsy treatment is to decrease the number and duration of seizures, and to address the psychological distress that often accompanies the disease. Although drug therapies have been the standard for epilepsy treatment, nearly one half of individuals with the diagnosis use some form of complementary therapy to manage symptoms.
Of the few studies in which yoga was used to alleviate epileptic symptoms, several have reported a decline in seizure frequency, and improved quality of life following a yoga intervention. It is proposed that by way of the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation, yoga may interrupt the neural pathways that trigger seizures. Limited brain imaging suggests that yoga and meditation may help to decrease limbic system and sympathetic nervous system activity, both of which are associated with stress. This modulation and stress reduction may serve an important function in decreasing the frequency and intensity of epileptic seizures.
Yoga for Other Neurological Conditions
A number of small, controlled trials and case studies have tested the impact of yoga for those with spinal cord disease (myelopathy), traumatic brain injury, Guillain-Barre syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), peripheral and diabetic neuropathies, adrenomyeloneuropathy, neurocardiogenic syncope, and other neurological anomalies. Although collectively there is a fraction of evidence for limited benefits of yoga practice, considerably more research is needed prior to making any conclusions or recommendations.
Limitations of Yoga for Neurological Conditions
On the whole, yoga research for those with neurological issues is very preliminary. There is, however, evidence that certain postures such as headstand (sirsasana) can lead to adverse effects including retinal vein occlusion, progressive optic neuropathy, visual loss, loss of motor function, and nervous system dysfunction. Although these incidents tend to be rare, and also occur in healthy populations, caution is always indicated when practicing yoga.
The results of this review suggest that yoga may be an effective complementary therapy for those with a number of neurological disorders such as stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Epilepsy, and dementia. Due to the neurological complexity of these conditions, those interested or already practicing yoga are encouraged to do so in consultation with their physician or neurologist, and to practice under the guidance of a highly-qualified yoga instructor or therapist who specializes in working with adults with neurological disease.
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.
Mooventhan A & Niventhitha L (2017). Evidence-based effects of yoga in neurological disorders. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience.