Yoga Reduces Chronic Pain of Arthritis

By Pat Anson, Editor

A few weeks of yoga can significantly improve the health and mental well-being of people suffering from the two most common forms of arthritis, according to a new study at Johns Hopkins University.

Researchers found that 8 weeks of yoga classes reduced pain and improved the energy, mood and physical activity of patients with rheumatoid arthritis or knee osteoarthritis. The study, published in the Journal of Rheumatology, is believed to be the largest randomized trial to examine the effect of yoga on the physical and psychological health of arthritis sufferers.

"There's a real surge of interest in yoga as a complementary therapy, with 1 in 10 people in the U.S. now practicing yoga to improve their health and fitness," said Susan Bartlett, PhD, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins and associate professor at McGill University.

"Yoga may be especially well suited to people with arthritis because it combines physical activity with potent stress management and relaxation techniques, and focuses on respecting limitations that can change from day to day."

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defenses attack joint tissues, causing pain, inflammation and bone erosion. About 1.5 million Americans and 1% of adults worldwide suffer from RA.

Knee osteoarthritis (OA) is even more common and affects over 250 million people worldwide. Nearly 40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 have some degree of knee OA, which causes thinning of cartilage and progressive joint damage.

Johns Hopkins researchers recruited 75 sedentary adults with either knee osteoarthritis or RA. Participants were randomly assigned to either a wait list or eight weeks of twice-weekly yoga classes, plus a weekly practice session at home. Their physical and mental well-being were assessed before and after the yoga sessions by researchers who did not know which group the participants had been assigned to.

Those doing yoga reported a 20% improvement in pain, energy levels, mood and physical function, including their ability to complete physical tasks. Walking speed also improved to a lesser extent, though there was little difference between the groups in tests of balance and upper body strength. Improvements in those who completed yoga were still apparent nine months later.

"For people with other conditions, yoga has been shown to improve pain, pain-related disability and mood," said Clifton Bingham III, MD, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center.

"But there were no well-controlled trial of yoga that could tell us if it was safe and effective for people with arthritis, and many health professionals have concerns about how yoga might affect vulnerable joints given the emphasis on changing positions and on being flexible. Our first step was to ensure that yoga was reasonable and safe option for people with arthritis.”

Participants were screened by their doctors prior to joining the study, and continued to take their regular arthritis medication. Instructors in the yoga classes also had additional training to modify poses to accommodate people with limited physical ability.

“Find a teacher who asks the right questions about limitations and works closely with you as an individual. Start with gentle yoga classes. Practice acceptance of where you are and what your body can do on any given day," Bingham said.