Yoga may offer some relief, research suggests

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Research shows that yoga may offer relief from symptoms associated with knee osteoarthritis. Guille Faingold/Stocksy
  • A new study found that online yoga improved physical function in people with knee osteoarthritis.
  • The results showed that the benefits of online yoga, including knee pain relief, declined after the 12-week program, as did activity participation.
  • Yet other studies have shown that regular yoga practice can relieve knee osteoarthritis.

New research has found that people with knee osteoarthritis who took a 12-week online yoga program saw improvements in their physical function, at least while they were taking the course.

However, the benefits of yoga, as well as people’s participation in online classes, declined within weeks of completing the program. The results were published September 19 in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine.

While the current study shows that subjects who participated in the online yoga program saw no improvement in their pain symptoms, other studies have seen positive results.

According to Pamela Stokes Eggleston, yoga therapist from Maryland and founder of Yoga2Sleep, yoga is “definitely helpful” for knee osteoarthritis. This can increase mobility and reduce pain, she added, which, in turn, can reduce the need for painkillers.

Eggleston said she knows this not just as a yoga therapist, but as someone with knee osteoarthritis.

While some people with osteoarthritis of the knee may experience pain severe enough to limit their daily activities, she told Healthline that when her first symptoms appeared, “the pain wasn’t debilitating, but it made me feel bad enough. hurts to get x-rays and an MRI”.

For her, there is no question of finding relief in yoga. “It’s about what yoga ‘medicine’ can I use to best help myself?” she says.

Osteoarthritis of the knee occurs when the cartilage in the knee joint breaks down, allowing the bones to rub together. It can cause pain and other symptoms.

This condition occurs more frequently in people aged 50 and over, although younger people can also develop it.

In people with osteoarthritis of the knee, the muscles that support the joint may be weak, which can lead to balance problems and increased risk of falling.

Because of this and other health risks associated with inactivity, exercise is advised for people with osteoarthritis of the knee to reduce pain, improve physical function and improve quality of life.

Regular physical activity can also help people maintain a healthy weight — carry extra body weight can add stress to the knees and increase joint inflammation.

In particular, low-impact activities such as walking, cycling, and yoga can help people stay active while being gentler on the knees than high-impact activities such as running.

When Eggleston first developed osteoarthritis of the knee, she said walking had become and remained her “go-to” cardiovascular activity. She also does a daily yoga practice and uses a rebounder or mini-trampoline — “any low-impact activity that’s going to get my heart rate up,” she said.

Additionally, she said she ate a largely plant-based diet and limited her intake of added sugars to maintain a healthy weight and reduce inflammation in her body. But any healthy, balanced diet should always be balanced with a regular exercise program.

Earlier to research supports the use of yoga for knee osteoarthritis, showing that it can improve pain, physical function, and joint stiffness. However, none of these previous studies have looked specifically at online yoga programs for people with this condition, so far.

The new study involved 212 people with knee osteoarthritis. All participants had access to online information about osteoarthritis, treatment options and the benefits of physical activity, weight loss and healthy sleep habits.

The researchers randomly assigned about half of the people to complete an online self-paced 12-week yoga program.

The program consisted of a series of 12 pre-recorded 30-minute videos. People were asked to do one video per week, three times during the week.

Classes included a slow-paced mix of static and dynamic yoga poses designed to stretch and strengthen core and leg muscles.

The instructors also offered different modifications and levels of poses, so people could tailor the program to their personal needs and abilities.

However, the classes focused on physical postures but did not include other aspects of yoga, such as deep relaxation, chanting and meditation, which could also help reduce pain.

After 12 weeks, subjects who took the yoga classes saw, on average, greater improvements in physical function, knee stiffness, and quality of life, compared to those who only had access to an online course on osteoarthritis.

Yet there was only a small difference between the two groups in the level of knee pain when walking at 12 weeks.

After the program ended, the researchers followed up the participants 12 weeks later. At that time, both groups had similar levels of physical function, pain, knee stiffness and quality of life.

This loss of benefit observed in the yoga group may be due to the fact that many people stopped taking yoga classes after the 12-week program ended.

During the last week of the course, more than two-thirds of the participants attended at least two classes per week. At the end of the follow-up period, however, less than a third were still following the online yoga program regularly.

“Not all participants were members. [to the yoga program]which may have dampened detection of any true benefit of yoga,” the authors wrote in the paper.

Other factors may also have made it difficult to determine the true benefits of yoga for knee osteoarthritis.

For example, the authors note that “because the yoga program was unsupervised, we do not know whether the yoga elements were performed correctly or completely.”

For people with osteoarthritis of the knee who want to try yoga for the first time, Eggleston recommends finding a yoga therapist or yoga teacher who specializes in teaching yoga for this condition or for arthritis in general. “This may not be a regular studio class,” she warned.

The “My Joint Yoga” program used in the new study was designed by the researchers in collaboration with yoga therapists, as well as a physical therapist and people with knee osteoarthritis. The full 12-week program is available on line.

The poses used in the class are those found in typical yoga classes, but with various modifications and levels. They understand:

Many of these poses strengthen the muscles around the knee, which Eggleston says is important for stabilizing the joint.

One move she has found personally helpful is slowly moving in and out of chair pose. A variation of this can also be done with your back against the wall for support.

For Eggleston, however, yoga isn’t just about doing poses on a mat. “It’s really about interoceptive awareness — being fully aware of what’s going on in my body,” she said.

Charlotte Nuessle, a Massachusetts-based yoga therapist said yoga is about learning to honor and listen to the body. For people with knee osteoarthritis, that means “they shouldn’t push their knee until they feel pain,” she told Healthline.

An easy way for people with knee osteoarthritis to listen to their bodies is to put a folded blanket or pillow under their knees in kneeling poses, Nuessle said, “enough of a cushion so the knee doesn’t not feel the weight of the body, especially on a hardwood floor.

In standing poses, Nuessle recommends that people learn to hold the pose without locking their knees. “When we lock our joints, we’re not asking our core body to engage as deeply or with the same awareness,” she said.

This requires being able to activate the core muscles – which are not limited to the abdominal muscles – and providing that support in yoga poses.

Dynamic yoga poses — which Nuessle calls “gentle mobilization and repetition” — can also help people engage the muscles around the knee without straining the joint.

“Every time we rehearse a movement, we have the opportunity to bring our awareness to it,” she said. “We have the opportunity to make a subtle adjustment. We have the opportunity to find a new way to do it.

New research shows that online yoga may not be an effective long-term treatment for knee pain associated with osteoarthritis, although it may provide temporary relief.

However, a large body of evidence supports consistent yoga practice to improve pain, function, and stiffness in people with knee osteoarthritis. Anecdotal reports from teachers and practitioners also support yoga for knee pain relief.

If you’re curious about how yoga can help manage your knee pain, be sure to consult your doctor to see if it’s right for you. It’s also a good idea to find a yoga teacher or therapist who specializes in working with people with this condition.


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