If you experience joint pain, you are not alone. I started feeling pain in my joints in my early to mid-30’s and found myself quite surprised by it. My knees creaked and ached. My wrists frequently got sore - geez that started in my mid-20's. I really felt like I was way too young to be dealing with joint pain. Isn’t arthritis for older people? Turns out it’s not that uncommon. After maintaining a regular yoga practice, however, I can report that my joint pain is completely gone. I’ve since learned that arthritis is widespread among US adults. Around 50 million people in the US report doctor-diagnosed arthritis. That doesn’t even include the people who are feeling joint pain and are living with it without an official diagnosis (like I did). I also learned that arthritis is the nation’s most common cause of disability. It is associated with considerable limitation of activity, work disability, as well as substantial health care costs.
Studies have shown that people with arthritis who exercise regularly have less pain, more energy, improved sleep and better day-to-day function. Yet, arthritis is one of the most common reasons people give for limiting physical activity and recreational activities. It’s understandable. It hurts! People with painful arthritis may have a difficult time being physically active because of the pain of the symptoms as well as lack of confidence in knowing how much and what to do. Long-term studies have shown that not just osteoarthritis, but also people with inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis can benefit from moderate intensity, weight-bearing activity (yoga!). According the CDC, physical activity can reduce pain and improve function, mobility, mood, and quality of life for most adults with many types of arthritis. They recommend including activities that improve balance for people with arthritis who may be at risk for falling (we do balance in yoga!). According to the American College of Rheumatology, both range-of-motion (ROM) and stretching exercises help to maintain or improve the flexibility in affected joints and surrounding muscles. This contributes to better posture, reduced risk of injuries and improved function. They recommend activities such as yoga because it incorporates both ROM and stretching movements. Yay yoga!!
They recommend yoga because the studies have shown yoga specifically helps people with arthritis improve many physical symptoms like pain and stiffness, and psychological issues like stress and anxiety. People with various types of arthritis who practice yoga regularly can reduce their joint pain, improve joint flexibility and function, and lower stress and tension to promote better sleep. “Yoga also can help a person with arthritis build muscle strength and improve balance”, says Sharon Kolasinski, MD, a professor of clinical medicine and a rheumatologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In addition, yoga offers people with arthritis a form of exercise that is enjoyable enough to do regularly.
Yoga provides an exercise option. It may not be the only thing you do, but it can be a component of an overall healthy regimen that may also include cardiovascular exercises like walking or biking. People with arthritis who practice yoga regularly will eventually see improved physical function. “Yoga can enhance pain management, thereby improving function,” Dr. Kolasinski says. Yoga can also benefit people with stiff joints due to arthritis. Stretching exercises in general help improve range of motion, so the fact that you’re stretching in yoga will help flexibility.
On days when you’re experiencing a painful arthritis flare, continuing to do some type of physical activity like yoga, if possible, can help you maintain joint flexibility. Yoga’s emphasis on introspective thought – pinpointing the sources of pain or anxiety and learning to relax them – can also help you develop a communication with your own body.
Specific poses that help arthritis
There are many yoga poses that have positive effects when working with arthritis symptoms. And even though arthritis is more common as we age, younger adults are not immune, as I pointed out earlier. Here are a few key poses to try for arthritis:
Mountain Pose – Works on the alignment of the body from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head. Perfect for improving posture and understanding balance.
Warrior Two – Opens the hips and strengthens the knee joints in flexion. The use of a tabletop, chair, or kitchen counter can help support you if you experience significant arthritic discomfort or balance concerns.
Downward Facing Dog Pose – Lengthens the spine to create space in the vertebrae as well as stretching the backs of the knees and ankles. The use of a waist-high surface, such as kitchen counter or a chair, or placing your hands on a wall can help build confidence if you are struggling with the full pose.
Bridge Pose– Opens the spine, shoulders, and neck. Use a block, pillow, or big book under your tailbone to maintain the lift in the pelvis if you find it difficult to lift them entirely at first. You can also place your shoulders resting on a blanket to create space to maintain the natural curvature of the neck.
Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose - Use of a strap, scarf, belt, or towel to hold the foot allows the leg to lengthen and the action of moving the foot away from center takes the hip joint through a wider range of motion in a controlled and safe way.
Sphinx Pose – Opens the chest and lifts the collar bones while enjoying the benefits of a gentle backbend.
Hands and Feet
Don’t forget about the joints found in the hands and feet! Keep wrists and ankles mobile by frequently circling hands and feet in both directions particularly if you spend your working life seated at a keyboard. Open and spread the fingers and toes and then close and clench.
Cheng YJ, Hootman JM, Murphy LB, Langmaid GA, Helmick CG: Prevalence of doctor-diagnosed arthritis and arthritis-attributable activity limitation –- United States, 2007–2009. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep2010,59(39):1261–1265.
Furner SE, Hootman JM, Helmick CG, Bolen J, Zack MM: Health-related quality of life of U.S. Adults with arthritis: analysis of data from the behavioral risk factor surveillance system, 2005, and 2007.Arthritis Care Res 2003, 2011: 788–799.
Move your body and fight arthritis.
Physical activity and arthritis. http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/pa_overview.htm
Practice management: Exercise and arthritis.