Monday Medical: Yoga for Arthritis

For people with arthritis, daily movement can seem daunting.

“If people have pain or feel stiff, they often don’t want to move, walk or exercise, which can affect all areas of life. Pain can contribute to stress or anxiety, affecting the whole person physically and emotionally,” said Liz Leipold, an occupational therapist at UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs who is also trained and certified as a yoga therapist.

But the gentle stretches and movements in yoga can help people with arthritis experience reduced pain and improved mobility, among other benefits.

Arthritis and your body

Arthritis is a condition that causes swelling and tenderness in one or more joints, causing symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common types of the disease, but there are more than 100 varieties.

“Yoga can offer a holistic individual approach to supporting health and well-being in so many different ways, from strengthening and improving flexibility to helping to balance the nervous system,” Leipold said. “Yoga can help improve the movement of synovial and lymphatic fluids through the body, reduce inflammation, improve posture and balance, and strengthen the muscles around the joints.”

These benefits can help increase mobility and strength while reducing pain in people with arthritis.

Yoga can also help reduce stress.

“When a person has arthritis or any disease that can cause pain, stress or anxiety, the various breathing practices that are part of a yoga practice can help calm the nervous system,” Leipold said.

As someone with arthritis, Leipold has experienced the benefits of yoga firsthand.

“Yoga definitely helped ease my symptoms of pain, stiffness and inflammation,” Leipold said.

Getting started with yoga

Before trying yoga, Leipold recommends consulting with a health care provider or rheumatologist. But in most cases, people with arthritis can try gentle yoga using variations that suit their needs.

“It’s very, very important that when you do yoga, you don’t feel pain,” Leipold said. “If something is not comfortable, it’s good to modify, change the position or add support for better posture and comfort. There should never be any pain or discomfort.

Modifications can be made so that people do not have to get on the floor.

“Some people will say, ‘I don’t do yoga because I can’t get off the floor,'” Leipold said. “But we can do poses and movements sitting in a chair or using a support chair, or even lying on our back in bed. Joint range of motion and breathing practices can be practiced in any position. Yoga meets you where you are.”

Useful poses

Gentle range of motion exercises can be performed systematically in all joints, from the ankles, knees and hips, to the spine and neck, including the shoulders and fingers.

“Mindful joint movement can improve flexibility, as well as the movement of synovial fluid, which helps lubricate the joints,” Leipold said.

Standing or seated mountain pose is good for promoting an upright spine and stability, which can help tone and strengthen muscles, improve breathing, and reduce pain.

Certain yoga poses, such as shoulder stand, should be avoided by people with arthritis of the spine or neck. Many poses can be modified for safety and improved comfort using props such as walls, chairs, pillows, and blocks. For example, a folded blanket or knee pad can help cushion the knees when kneeling.

Leipold recommends finding a class that’s right for your level, or working directly with a certified yoga instructor, yoga therapist, physical therapist, or occupational therapist to tailor a yoga and exercise routine that works for you.

Sometimes it only takes one session to start feeling the benefits.

“After the first session, some people may feel a little better,” Leipold said.

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at [email protected].

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