One of the leading causes of disability in older adults is osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis. OA occurs when the cartilage in a joint that cushions the ends of the bones deteriorates from wear and tear. Joints commonly affected are the hands, knees, hips, and spine. Symptoms may include joint pain, stiffness, loss of flexibility, bony tenderness with bony enlargements, and deformity. Lesser-known symptoms of arthritis may include increased stress, sleep disturbances, and a negative impact on mood. In addition to traditional treatments recommended to help manage the symptoms such as pain medications, physical therapy, exercise, cortisone injections, or even surgical procedures, yoga may also be recommended by your healthcare provider as a complementary therapy.
Benefits of Yoga for OA
Many physical symptoms of OA, like joint pain and stiffness, can improve with the regular practice of gentle yoga. Yoga can also help reduce tension, stress, and anxiety, which can in turn improve sleep. As joint function and flexibility increase, yoga can also help build strength in the muscles surrounding the affected joints, further reducing wear and tear, and taking pressure off those joints. With more strength usually also comes better balance and coordination. Moreover, for some people yoga is an enjoyable enough activity that they are likely to do it regularly.
Yoga Therapy Approach to OA
Where some people’s OA symptoms improve in a one-size-fits-all group class setting (and I’ve seen this many times, even with Rheumatoid arthritis), other people may benefit more from a practice tailored to their unique needs.
For instance, if your OA symptoms are worse when you put weight on the affected joint, then a yoga therapist will likely assess whether a reclining movement practice on the floor or on a firm bed would be more suitable. By putting the areas of concern (such as knees and hips) in a non-weight bearing position, you may find you have more range of motion with less pain. As pain and stiffness are reduced, standing or kneeling poses may be added as appropriate.
From a yoga therapy perspective, we usually don’t add movement where there is pain. In the case of OA, however, you may need to tolerate some discomfort due to the nature of the condition. This does not mean, however, that you should move through intense pain. Due to the pain and stiffness associated with OA, your yoga therapist will design a sequence that minimizes pain and links movement dynamically with your breath rather than stays or holds. The fluid, wave-like nature of this type of movement and breathing may not only ease tension but may improve the viscosity of the synovial fluid in your joints.
If you consider that your body is at least 60% water, encouraging movement that mirrors the aqueous nature of your own anatomy may recover some of the hydration your body needs to move more freely. And don’t be surprised that a gradual softening of the body may also help release long-held emotions that no longer serve you. Shifts in the way we move can lead to shifts in awareness and evoke new experiences of the self.
A Final Note On Yoga as a Holistic Approach As yoga therapists employ a holistic approach to your therapeutic plan, they may also offer unique tools that take into account your full health picture. These tools may include mindful breath techniques, soothing visualization, meditation, sleep hygiene, tools of ayurveda, and other lifestyle changes to improve your overall wellbeing.
Yoga and yoga therapy are not substitutes for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.