If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the last thing you probably think about doing is bending, twisting and contorting your body into all manner of positions.
But increasingly research suggests regularly doing this in the form of yoga, particularly the gentle forms like Iyengar and Hatha, can provide significant relief from both the physical and psychological symptoms of RA.1
Rheumatoid arthritis and yoga
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice involving exercises, breathing techniques and meditation. Almost everybody can benefit from it, but it can have a particularly impressive impact on those with arthritic pain. Put simply, RA causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints and has the ability to make you anxious, stressed and depressed. There is currently no cure for it, though it can be successfully managed - and yoga can help with this. On the physical side, the exercises can help to increase joint strength, flexibility and balance; and psychologically, the breathing, meditation and mindfulness can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It can even help to encourage better sleep and possibly lead to an improved tolerance of pain.2
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition characterised by joint stiffness, pain and inflammation which can also cause fatigue and depression.3 It's one of the two most common forms of arthritis, with the other being osteoarthritis (OA), a condition where the cartilage between the bones gradually erodes away leading to symptoms including joint tenderness and stiffness, restricted movement and possibly a painful grating sensation felt in the joints.4 Typically those living with arthritic pain will be on pain-relieving medication, but symptoms can be eased further by making beneficial lifestyle changes including eating a joint-healthy diet with plenty of anti-inflammatory foods, keeping your weight down, protecting your joints, getting plenty of sleep and doing regular joint-friendly exercise like yoga.5
A 2009 study on 26 RA patients who completed an eight-week yoga programme showed a correlation between yoga and reduced symptoms.6 A different study assessed the impact on young women with RA who took twice-weekly Iyengar yoga classes over six weeks. It found yoga helped improve their pain, mood, acceptance of pain and reduced their anxiety and depression.7 Another study on 16 postmenopausal women with RA who took three 75-minute yoga sessions weekly over a 10-week period showed significant improvements in balance and perceived pain and depression.8
What's more, the benefits of yoga aren't restricted to RA. A study on people with OA of the knee found that those who did a 90-minute Iyengar-style yoga session once a week for eight weeks again reported a significant reduction in pain and joint stiffness.9 Another studying the effects of doing Hatha yoga three times a week over 8 weeks on middle-aged women with knee OA showed pain and symptoms significantly decreased.10
Start off slow
Yoga can have an almost immediate positive impact on symptoms for some people, but for others it can take longer. Either way, many say yoga has transformed their ability to cope with RA. A beneficial thing about yoga is that anyone can take it up - you don't have to be young and bendy. It's important though to be wary of going too hard in the beginning. Before you start, ask your yoga teacher about anything you shouldn't attempt given your specific condition. From there, choose an appropriate class to suit your requirements. Some practitioners offer classes specifically for those with arthritis, but you should check whether your instructor is experienced in teaching those with arthritic pain. Many yoga positions can be modified to accommodate your particular limitations and props like a chair can be used to help with balance.
It's also important to note how your body responds to yoga. If a stretch or position causes you pain, move into an easier pose. Work within your capabilities and be wary of overdoing it, especially if you are having a flare-up. That said, it's suggested that if you can manage a few gentle yoga poses when a joint is flaring up, this can potentially ease your stress levels as well as helping with joint flexibility.11
Practicing yoga at home
The other big advantage of yoga is that once you've mastered some basic stretches and poses with an instructor, you can then do these any time at home. There are also many online arthritis-friendly videos you can take advantage of.12
Yoga is usually gentle enough to be done daily, but you'll experience benefits from doing it at least twice or three times a week. The most effective positions and exercises for those with RA largely depend on you and how your symptoms manifest themselves. A trained instructor will be able to provide more individualised guidance to adapt to your personal needs, though for some simple introductory postures that can help increase flexibility and a sense of calm, the Cat and Cow position, in addition to the Child's Pose, are good options. Other positions that you could try at home include the Cobra and the Side Angle Pose.13
The bottom line
Your GP should always be your first port of call if you have joint problems. However, you may find yoga and a healthy, well balanced diet can also help.
If you're interested in learning more about how to keep your joints healthy, select Joints from the Your health menu above.