Yoga & Arthritis

New research, published in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, finds that an 8-week regimen of intensive yoga eases both the physical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and the psychological distress that usually accompanies the condition.

Dr. Rima Dada, Ph.D., who is a professor in the Department of Anatomy at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, led the new research.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects approximately 1.3 million people in the United States. The disease is most likely autoimmune, which means that the immune system mistakes the body's own tissues and cartilage as foreign and attacks them. While there is no cure for RA, there are a variety of medications available. However, as Dr. Dada and her colleagues explain in their paper, recovery depends on various factors, some of which are psychological. Depression, for instance, often occurs alongside RA, and it can negatively affect a person's outcome.

In this context, Dr. Dada and team wondered if a yoga-based mind-body intervention could ease depressive symptoms in RA and help achieve remission of this chronic disease. To find out, Dr. Dada and colleagues examined the effects of practicing yoga intensively in 72 people with RA.

The scientists divided the study participants into two groups. Both groups continued to take disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which are the drugs doctors typically prescribe for this condition. Also, one group engaged in 120-minute sessions of yoga five times a week, for 8 weeks. The two main outcomes the researchers assessed were disease activity and depression severity. After the intervention, improvements in markers of neuroplasticity, inflammation, cellular health, and cellular aging — such as oxidative stress — showed that yoga had a positive effect on those who practiced it.

Dr. Dada and colleagues conclude, "Yoga, a mind-body intervention reestablished immunological tolerance by aiding remission at molecular and cellular level along with significant reduction in depression." "Thus in this inflammatory arthritis with a major psychosomatic component, yoga can be used as a complementary/adjunct therapy." The study's lead author reports, "Our findings show measurable improvements for the patients in the test group, suggesting an immune-regulatory role of yoga practice in the treatment of RA."

"An intensive yoga regimen," she continued, "concurrent with routine drug therapy induced molecular remission and re-established immunological tolerance. In addition, it reduced the severity of depression by promoting neuroplasticity."


My Take: While this study was primarily looking at the psychological benefits of yoga for RA, they also found “remission at molecular and cellular level, suggesting an immune-regulatory role of yoga practice in RA.”

Clinically, I often see gait mechanisms resolve when a patient practices yoga. Gait mechanisms are compensatory adaptations that are reinforced neurologically with chronic musculoskeletal issues. A patient that limps because of back pain will compromise other joints, usually in the lower extremities, to compensate for that pain. With time, the nervous system accepts these altered patterns of movement as normal and they can become permanent even if the pain resolves. Yoga is one method to “reboot the nervous system” to return to normal.

There is a yoga center across the parking lot from my office. I have had the privilege of treating many of the instructors over the course of the past 30 years. These women, now in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are amazingly fit and healthy. They move with grace, maintaining a posture that is enviable by all who see them. Typically, they are a breeze to treat as they heal quickly with minimal care.

Bottom Line: I’m not surprised that yoga, practiced on a regular basis, helps reverse the course of an autoimmune disease like RA. I encourage you to practice yoga, you will be amazed by the health benefits.

Source: February 13, 2019 National Institutes of Health

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