Is Yoga for Pain Relief the Answer, or is it the Problem?

Numerous studies have tied yoga to health gains ranging from pain relief to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate to improvements in depression, anxiety, and sleep problems. And, while many people begin doing yoga for pain relief, hoping to heal an injury, some of them wind up with more aches and pains, a new study has found.

The study, which surveyed hundreds of people doing yoga for more than a year, found that two-thirds said that some existing aches improved because of yoga — most often, lower back and neck pain.

However, 21% said yoga worsened their muscle or joint pain and almost 11% said it caused new issues; most common among these being pain in the hand, wrist, elbow or shoulder.

When Yoga is Painful

In a study published last year, lead researcher Tom Swain and his colleagues with the Center for Injury Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, looked at serious yoga-related injuries. They found that between 2001 and 2014, almost 30,000 Americans landed in the emergency room for injuries attributed to yoga: including sprained joints, serious muscle strains, and even fractures. And the rate climbed over the years, the study found.

Yet, given the popularity of yoga, the risk of ending up in the ER is statistically low, the researchers said. By 2014, the rate of ER-treated injuries stood at 17 for every 100,000 yoga practitioners.

“So even though there is some risk of injury,” Swain said, “that shouldn’t deter people from participating in yoga, because there are many potential benefits.”

Plus, based on other research, yoga may not be any riskier than other forms of exercise, according to the researchers behind the current study, led by Marc Campo of Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

Of 354 people surveyed twice during the year, some 87% said they’d had pain in at least one body area during that year. About two-thirds said their pain had improved because of yoga, while one-fifth believed yoga had worsened some of their aches, often in the wrist or hand. Meanwhile, nearly 11% said they’d developed a new injury that they attributed to yoga. For about 5%, the pain actually began during a yoga class.

As with so many things, knowledge and experience are the keys to avoiding problems when trying something new. An experienced yoga instructor should be able to help you avoid new pain, while improving range of motion and reducing existing pain.

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