DEAR DOCTOR K: I’ve heard that yoga can help relieve chronic pain. What types of pain can yoga help?
DEAR READER: People have been practicing yoga for thousands of years. This mind-body exercise combines breath control, meditation and movements to stretch and strengthen muscles. But yoga places as great an emphasis on mental fitness as on physical fitness.
Research finds that yoga may help relieve pain in people with a variety of chronic pain conditions, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches and low back pain.
A study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine looked at 313 patients with chronic low back pain. The researchers found that a weekly yoga class increased mobility more than standard medical care for the condition.
People with carpal tunnel syndrome may also benefit from yoga. In 2003, the Cochrane Collaboration published a review of 21 studies. (This international group of health authorities evaluates randomized clinical trials.) They concluded that yoga significantly reduced pain in people with the syndrome.
Other studies have found that yoga may help increase strength and flexibility. The evidence is less strong that yoga improves physical fitness or balance, but there is some suggestion that it does. Yoga may improve what are called the “executive function” aspects of thinking. There is strong evidence that yoga reduces stress and anxiety.
Interestingly, yoga appears to calm inflammation in the body and boost the immune system, as measured by the immune response to immunizations for viral diseases. It also appears to modestly lower blood pressure, though not to a greater degree than other forms of exercise.
There are several types of yoga. The most popular form practiced in the United States is hatha yoga. It is built around a series of yoga postures, called asanas. Yoga sessions typically last from 45 to 90 minutes. But you can also get some benefit from shorter sessions, done a few times a week.
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