Practicing Yoga Promotes Healthy Joint Function

Yoga’s Powerful Effect On The Human Joints

Whether it’s yoga on the ground, on a slackline, or on a person, it’s important to protect the joints in our body. I recently did a research paper on the effects of yoga on the human joints. Not only the effects on healthy joints, but also the effects on unhealthy joints. This is a big subject to dive into, so I narrowed it down by focusing on four main questions.
  • What is Yoga?
  • What is a joint and how does it work?
  • How is a healthy joint different from an unhealthy joint?
  • How does yoga affect the joints, healthy and unhealthy?

Warrior 1 on a slackline, which is also known as Virabhadrasana 1.

With these four questions, I explored different people’s opinions as well as scientific studies. I came up with a lot of information giving me more insight into the world of human anatomy, and the role yoga can play in our journey of aging. I want to share with you what I learned….

Let’s start with…What is Yoga?

First of all, in order to study the effects of yoga, we must take a closer look at what yoga is. Yoga is defined as a 5000 + year old ancient system of health that enhances all aspects of an individual – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. How does it do this, you might be wondering…well, yoga is made up mainly of asanas, pranayama, and meditation exercises. By practicing these exercises regularly, it’s believed that you can focus the mind, strengthen the body, and connect with your inner peace.
There are many forms of yoga that have taken form over the years. Each style is a little different, so I recommend exploring many of them to see what works best for you. Many styles offer props and blankets for modifying poses, to make the practice accessible for all people.

The wonderful @chelleslacks Picture by @atomreece

Pranayama is the practice of breath control or conscious breathing. While this exercise helps to calm the body and mind, it also stimulates the ability to focus the mind. Meditation is a practice of using breath work and discipline to guide the body, mind, and environment into union, connecting you to inner peace.
Asanas are body postures that are designed to strengthen and stretch our muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. This exercise is intended to sync your breath with your body movements. It can be done with individual static poses as well as by linking static poses together into a flow. Now let’s take a look at what a human joint is and how it works in the body.

Side Note #1

An interesting side note I discovered while I was researching, was some facts about the origin of our western yoga practice. Although the origin of traditional Hatha yoga is described to be a 5000+ year old ancient Hindu practice, the standard western versions of yoga may not be that ancient at all. In short, the article describes how ancient hatha yoga practice focused on the spiritual culture with mostly pranayama and meditation. Where as current western practice focuses more on the physical culture with mostly asana practices. The asana based practices stemmed from teachers like T.krishnamacharya (1888- 1989) out of the 1920’s and 30’s. He fused Kuvalayananda’s system with hatha  yoga, wrestling, and modern western gymnastic movement. For more info check out the full article.

What is a joint, and how does it work?

A joint in the human body is defined as the area where two bones are attached for the purpose of allowing body parts to move. A joint is usually formed from fibrous connective tissue and cartilage.  Since there are several types of joints in the body, they are grouped according to their type of motion. We have the ball-and-socket joint, hinge joint, the condyloid joint, the pivot joint, gliding joint and saddle joint. These joints can only move in four ways. They have a gliding motion, angular motion, circumduction motion, and a rotational motion.

Defining the 4 Motions of the Joints

  • Gliding motion– allows the bones to glide past one another in any direction along the plane of a joint, including up, down, left, right, and diagonal motions. Example- hand waving side-to-side.
  • Angular motion– a movement in which the angle between two adjoining bones is decreased, as in flextion, or increased, as in extension. This also includes hyperextension, abduction, and adduction. Example- moving head backward and forward as if saying yes to someone.
  • Circumduction motion– circular or conical movement of a body part consisting of flection, extension, adduction and abduction. Example- rotating hand from the wrist.
  • Rotation motion– a movement in which a bone or limb pivots or revolves around a single long axis. Example- externally rotating your leg

The Main Components That Make Up A Joint

To get a better understanding of how a joint works, let’s look at the main components that make up a joint. First let’s talk about the subchondral bone. This is the part of bone located just above the cartilage that is the foundation of cartilage.

Cartilage is a living tissue, and its main purpose is to allow perfect sliding between bones. It also helps distribute pressure on the bones and is good for cushioning the bones due to its elastic and resistant properties. Cartilage completely renews itself approximately every 3 months. Small pieces of it break away and are eliminated by the synovial membrane. The synovial membrane secrets the synovial fluid that acts as the lubricant for joints, creating that perfect slide between bone ends.

Then there is the fibrous covering of the joint, called the capsule. The synovial membrane coats the inside of the capsule and helps bring oxygen and nutrients that are essential for the life of the cartilage. When all these components are working properly you have a healthy and functioning joint that’s strong and has a full range of motion.

How is a healthy joint different from an unhealthy joint?

As I described above, a healthy joint has a full range of motion with all the internal components working properly. Thus creating perfect slide between bones allowing the distribution of pressure on the bones during movement of the body. A healthy joint doesn’t commonly have pain, because there is the proper amount of synovial fluid and proper elimination of excess cartilage fragments. A joint that is not healthy however, typically does have pain.

An unhealthy joint is when one of the main components of a joint are not functioning. We commonly see this take form as arthritis. Arthritis is the inflammation and stiffness of the joints. There are many forms of arthritis, but I would like to focus on the most common of all of them, Osteoarthritis ( also know as Degenerative joint disease).  This is where the surface cartilage in the joints breaks down and wears away, causing the bones to rub together. This rubbing together of the bones is what causes pain, swelling and loss of motion in the joints. It’s important to note that there is no actual cure for arthritis, but there are things you can do to help.

How does yoga affect the joints, healthy and unhealthy?

Yoga provides a foundation for strengthening and stretching muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments. This helps allow joint flexibility and range of motion, while also helping move the fluids through the body. Specifically, yoga helps circulate synovial fluid through the joints, which we learned above helps lubricate the joints. With stronger and more flexible muscles, the greater the ability to stabilize a joint. We minimize risk of injury with yoga, because flexibility and strength allow for greater impact absorption as well as more effective weight distribution. From all my research the most important way to maintain healthy joints is exercise and movement. Yoga is an excellent way to move the body and help maintain healthy functioning joints.  In short, yoga helps keep healthy joints healthy.

Yoga helps the joints be strong and flexible. Like the lovely @lindsayjang pictured above

Now lets look at the effects of yoga on unhealthy joints. Their have been just over a dozen scientific studies done on persons with OA (Osteoarthritis) and RA (Rheumatoid arthritis).  All the studies done, including the largest one to date in 2015 at the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, concludes that yoga may be beneficial. It provides physical and psychological health benefits, reduces stress and shows some improvements in emotional/mental well-being. Finally and maybe most notably, yoga has an important positive effect on the quality of life. Several years after the studies, many participants still practice yoga and consider it an important part of their lifestyle and disease management.

 

Are there risks, or poses to avoid in yoga?

Whether you have healthy joints or arthritic joints the rule is the same, if it hurts, stop or back off a little bit. With yoga, you want to listen to the body and ease into poses. One goal of yoga is to be conscious of proper body structure and alignment. It’s important to keep the bones stacked so you’re not putting extra stress on your joints. Like with any practice, if you use improper technique you risk injury. As far as poses to avoid, some studies show that arthritic patients should not go to deep in back bends. Those with arthritis in the hips, be cautious with hip openers or poses with extreme external rotation of the hips. It’s recommended for individuals, arthritic or not, to talk to a yoga instructor on advice on how to modify a pose if needed.

Here is a link to an article on poses for arthritic patients. It has some good pictures showing how you can use props to modify poses as needed.

 

Side Note #2

I found this article that did an interesting review. The aim of this review was to assess published case reports and case series on adverse events associated with yoga. Many databases were screened through Feb. 2013, resulting in a total of 76 cases collected. Pranayama, hatha yoga, and Bikram were the most common yoga practices. Headstands, shoulder stands, lotus position, and forceful breathing were the most common yoga poses and breathing techniques cited. Results of the review suggest that beginners should avoid headstands, lotus position, and forceful breathing. Check out the article for more detailed information on the results of the study.

 

Yoga is Powerful

In conclusion, the practice of yoga is powerful. When done regularly there are many health benefits both physically and mentally. Even those with arthritic discomfort have expressed increased quality of life from their yoga practice. As a result of looking at the studies and articles out there it’s easy to conclude that yoga is a great practice for everyone. It can have a positive effect on both healthy and arthritic joints, increasing strength and flexibility.

Our editor @lindsikaycircus, warming up to edit this blog. 😉

If practiced with attention to body posture and bone alignment, yoga is an excellent low impact activity for all. As we age, we need to keep the body moving and the juices flowing for our joints to maintain proper function. I believe that yoga can help you do just that!

In addition to lowering stress, yoga can help you sleep better as well as reduce anxiety. It can reduce inflammation, improve heart/cardiovascular fitness and finally helps keep bones and joints strong and limber. The results of my study strongly support yoga as way to stay active and healthy. There is so much information on this subject, I made sure to include all my resources. I just grazed the surface in this article, to dive deeper, check out the links below.

 

Buddy Thomas

 

 

Resources

http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=4074

http://www.arthrolink.com/en/disease/understanding/what-normal-joint-0 – has a picture of a joint

https://draxe.com/degenerative-joint-disease/

http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/arthritis-self-management.php

http://www.osteobiflex.com/articles/how-yoga-helps-maintain-healthy-joints/

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075515

https://www.hopkinsarthritis.org/patient-corner/disease-management/yoga-for-arthritis/#poses

https://www.hopkinsarthritis.org/patient-corner/disease-management/yoga-poses-for-arthritis-patients-from-johns-hopkins/

http://www.yogajournal.com/article/philosophy/yoga-s-greater-truth/

 

 

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