For people suffering from arthritis, everyday movement can feel daunting.
“If people have pain or feel stiff, often they do not want to move, walk or exercise, which can impact 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 may help people with arthritis experience decreased pain and improved mobility, among other benefits.
Arthritis and your body
Arthritis is a condition that results in swelling and tenderness of one or more joints, causing symptoms such as pain, stiffness and decreased 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 whole-person approach to help with health and wellness in so many different ways, from strengthening and improving flexibility, to helping balance the nervous system,” Leipold said. “Yoga may help improve movement of synovial and lymph fluids through the body, decrease inflammation, improve posture and balance, and strengthen the muscles around the joints.”
Those benefits may help increase mobility and strength while decreasing pain for people with arthritis.
Yoga may also help reduce stress. “When one 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 herself, Leipold has experienced the benefits of yoga first-hand.
“Yoga has definitely helped relieve my symptoms of pain, stiffness and inflammation,” Leipold said.
Getting started with yoga
Before trying yoga, Leipold recommends checking with a health care provider or rheumatologist. But in most cases, people with arthritis can try gentle yoga using variations to fit their needs.
“It’s very, very important when one is doing yoga to not be in pain,” Leipold said. “If something isn’t comfortable, it’s okay to modify, vary a position or add a prop for better posture and comfort. There should never be pain or discomfort.”
Modifications to yoga sequences can be made so people don’t have to get on the floor.
“Some people will say, ‘I don’t do yoga because I can’t get up off the floor,’” Leipold said. “But we can do postures and movements sitting down in a chair, or using a chair for support, or even laying down supine in bed. Joint range of motion and breathing practices can be practiced in any position. Yoga meets you where you are.”
Helpful yoga poses for arthritis
Gentle range of motion exercises can be done systematically through all of the joints, from the ankles, knees and hips, to the spine and neck, including shoulders and fingers. “Gently moving the joints can improve flexibility as well as improve movement of synovial fluid, which helps to lubricate the joints,” Leipold said.
The mountain posture in standing or sitting is good for promoting upright spinal alignment and stability, which may help tone and strengthen muscles, improve breathing, and decrease pain.
Some yoga postures, such as a shoulder stand, should be avoided by people with spinal or neck arthritis. Many postures can be modified for safe and improved comfort with the use of props, such as walls, chairs, cushions and blocks. For instance, a folded blanket or knee pad can help cushion the knees when kneeling.
Leipold recommends finding a yoga class that is suited for your level or working directly with a certified yoga teacher, yoga therapist, physical therapist or occupational therapist to tailor a yoga and exercise routine that works for you.
Sometimes, one session is all it takes to start feeling the benefits.
“After the first session, some people might feel a little better,” Leipold said.
This story first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot.