Arthritis is one of the most widespread diseases in the western world, so yoga teachers routinely find that some of their students suffer from the condition. The condition presents itself in different forms and intensities, and it is essential to know some of the basics about the condition, so that those with arthritis can be accommodated in yoga classes.
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Two Main Types of Arthritis
When people talk about arthritis they are usually referring to osteoarthritis (OA), which is the most common form of the disease. This is a chronic degenerative condition which is caused by wear-and-tear on the joints and cartilage over many years, and usually affects people aged seventy and up. Contrary to popular belief not all arthritis is necessarily painful. Athletes, or people who have done very physical jobs, may develop arthritis at a younger age due to more wear-and-tear on particular joints. The joints most commonly affected are those of the fingers, spine, and weight bearing joints such as the hips and knees.
Symptoms of OA May Include:
- Pain and tenderness in the affected joint
- Swelling of the affected joints
- Stiffness after period of activity
- Restricted movement in the affected joint
- Crunching noise when moved
A lesser known form of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This is a chronic inflammatory disorder and most commonly begins between the ages of thirty and fifty. This form of the disease is typically 3 times more common in women than men, and may develop abruptly or slowly. RA is classed as an autoimmune disease, which means that the body’s immune system attempts to destroy its own tissues. Many joints, but particularly those of the fingers, wrists, ankles and feet are affected in this disease.
Symptoms of RA May Include:
- Stiffness and pain in the joints, typically worse in the morning and relieved by movement
- Swelling of the affected joints
- Small, painless bumps on areas of pressure, such as the elbows
- Thinning of muscle around the joints
- Restriction of movement
- RA sometimes presents with symptoms of tiredness and depression
Can Yoga Help?
Both forms of arthritis can and do eventually cause irreversible damage to joints and cartilage, so it is possible that a sufferer may permanently lose range of movement in some of the affected joints. However literature shows that yoga can help in many cases in terms of pain relief, and regaining some range of movement.
Practically, yoga can help with:
- Development of good sitting and standing postures, which may help prevent or lessen joint deterioration
- Joint protection, such as avoiding the additional pressure of compensating for a painful joint may prevent further damage
- Strength and flexibility training may support affected joints, and bolster compensating joints and muscles
- The release of feel-good hormones can help with pain relief
There is some evidence to support the use of yoga in the treatment of arthritis. As examples, in one particular study, participants reported decreased pain, fatigue, swelling, and flare-ups after following a tailored yoga protocol. They had increased energy, and increased pain-free range of motion and strength around affected joints, as well as a heightened sense of well-being. In another study, 6 out of 9 participants report physiological and psychological improvements. Lastly, in a study on yoga to treat RA, it was found that two yoga classes per week plus one self-practice, helped decrease physical pain, increase vitality and improve general health. It was reported that the effects lasted 9 months.
Top Tips for Yoga Teachers
Bearing all of this information in mind, here are some tips to help those who are suffering with arthritis, or teachers who may be teaching someone with arthritis:
- Become familiar with key terms and presentation of the disease – arthritis is a very common condition which you will come across sooner or later, and it will be helpful if you can demonstrate a basic knowledge of the disease.
- Always ask students if they have any aches and pains before you start a class – this may tease out those who are suffering from arthritis.
- Offer modifications for postures – Consider which joints are most commonly affected by arthritis and develop ideas for modifications for the most difficult postures. For example, arthritis often affects the joints of the hands and fingers, so four-limbed staff pose chaturanga dandasana may be very difficult. Could you offer a modified chaturanga with less weight-bearing?
- Never push an arthritis sufferer into a posture they’re not comfortable with. People who suffer from the condition usually know their limitations very well, so they will know what movements are the most difficult or uncomfortable.
- Don’t feel bad if someone has to skip a number of postures because of this condition – in fact, you can help by creating a safe space for them to opt out of postures they struggle with. They will still reap the pain-relieving benefits of relaxation. Many of the benefits of yoga are mental-emotional in nature, and may come from the period of relaxation offered in your class.
- Heat may bring relief to arthritic joints – it will help if you can maintain a warm temperature in the room, and ensure you take students through a thorough warm-up sequence. It may help an arthritis sufferer to have some warmer clothes on hand of the room isn’t warm enough, or to wear a bandage or strap on affected parts.
Having looked more closely at the condition, the evidence, and top tips, yoga practitioners and teachers can feel encouraged to use yoga for relief from arthritis. They are not alone in using this approach, and new evidence is emerging regularly to support it.
We’d love to know – what is your experience of practising yoga with arthritis, or of teaching someone with arthritis? Let us know by writing a comment below!