Yoga May Offer Some Relief, Research Shows

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Research shows that yoga can provide relief from symptoms associated with knee osteoarthritis. Guille Faingold/Stocksy
  • A new study found that online yoga improves physical function in people with knee osteoarthritis.
  • Results showed that the benefits of online yoga, including knee pain relief, decreased after the 12-week program, as did participation in the activity.
  • However, other studies have shown that regular yoga practice can provide relief from knee osteoarthritis.

New research has found that people with knee osteoarthritis who participated in a 12-week online yoga program saw improvements in their physical function — at least during the class.

However, the benefits of yoga, as well as attending the online classes, began to wear off in the weeks after the program ended. The results were published in the journal on September 19. 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 shown positive results.

Yoga is “definitely helpful” for knee osteoarthritis, according to Maryland-based yoga therapist Pamela Stokes Eggleston, founder of Yoga2Sleep. It can increase mobility and reduce pain, she added, which in turn can reduce the need to take pain medication.

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

While some people with knee osteoarthritis can have pain severe enough to limit their daily activities, she told Healthline when her symptoms first emerged, “the pain wasn’t debilitating, but it was so painful that I needed X-rays and had to do an MRI.”

Relief through yoga was out of the question for her. “It’s about which ‘medicine’ from yoga I can use to better help myself?” she said.

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

This condition is more common in people over the age of 50, although younger people can also develop it.

In people with knee osteoarthritis, the muscles that support the joint may be weak, which can lead to imbalance and an increase risk of falls.

Because of these and other health risks associated with inactivity, people with osteoarthritis of the knee are encouraged to exercise to reduce pain, improve physical function, and improve their quality of life.

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Regular physical activity can also help maintain a healthy weight — carrying extra body weight can put extra stress on the knees and increase inflammation in the joint.

In particular, low-impact activities like walking, biking, and yoga can help people stay active while being gentler on the knees than higher-impact activities like running.

When Eggleston first developed knee osteoarthritis, she said walking was and will remain her “go-to” cardiovascular activity. She also does a daily yoga practice and uses a rebounder or mini-trampoline — “any low-impact activity that gets my heart rate up,” she said.

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

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

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.

Researchers randomly assigned about half of the subjects to a 12-week self-paced online yoga program.

The program consisted of a series of 12 pre-recorded 30-minute videos. People were asked to make a video three times a week.

Classes included a slow mix of static and dynamic yoga poses aimed at stretching and strengthening the muscles of the core and legs.

Instructors also offered various modifications and levels of poses, allowing participants to tailor the program to their personal needs and abilities.

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

After 12 weeks, the subjects who participated in the yoga classes saw greater improvements in their physical functioning, knee stiffness and quality of life, on average, compared to those who only had access to online osteoarthritis education.

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However, there was little difference between the two groups in the extent of knee pain when walking after 12 weeks.

After the program ended, the researchers followed the participants for another 12 weeks. At this point, both groups had similar levels of physical function, pain, knee stiffness, and quality of life.

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

In the last week of the course, more than two-thirds of the participants completed at least two lessons per week. However, at the end of the follow-up period, less than a third were still doing the online yoga program regularly.

“Not all participants have followed it [to the yoga program]which may have dampened recognition of real benefits 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, “Because the yoga program was unsupervised, we do not know whether the yoga elements were performed correctly or completely.”

For people with knee osteoarthritis who are interested in trying yoga for the first time, Eggleston recommends finding a yoga therapist or yoga teacher who specializes in teaching yoga for the condition or for arthritis in general. “This may not be a normal studio class,” she warned.

The My Joint Yoga program used in the new study was developed 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 online.

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

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

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

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For Eggleston, however, yoga means much more than doing poses on a mat. “It’s really about interoceptive awareness — being fully aware of things that are going on in my body,” she said.

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

An easy way for people with knee osteoarthritis to listen to their body is to place a folded blanket or pillow under their knees in kneeling poses, Nuessle said, “enough padding so the knee doesn’t 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 body core to engage as deeply or with the same awareness,” she said.

This requires activating the core muscles—this is more than just the abdominal muscles—and bringing that support into the yoga poses.

Dynamic yoga poses — which Nuessle calls “gentle mobilization and repetition” — can also help people activate the muscles surrounding the knee without putting stress on the joint.

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

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

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

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

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