Can Yoga Fight Inflammation?

Many forms of arthritis, especially autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, involve inflammation, a process that causes joint swelling, redness, and pain and eventually destroys  the joint components. Yoga may be a gentle, soothing form of physical activity for someone with RA or a similar disease, but can regular yoga practice actually help reduce inflammation?

While Dr. Kolasinski says that yoga practice does not reduce inflammation, a 2010 study led by researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, at Ohio State University in Columbus, may prove differently. Kiecolt-Glaser measured key blood markers for inflammation in a study of 50 healthy women practicing basic Hatha yoga postures and found promising results.

The women were divided between yoga novices and experts, and the more experienced yoga practitioners showed lower levels of inflammation-causing proteins like interleukin-6 in their blood. Catheters were inserted into each woman’s arm to measure various substances during the yoga sessions, Kiecolt-Glaser explains. These included C-reactive protein, tumor necrosis alpha and interleukin-6, all proteins that may play a role in inflammation in many forms of arthritis, including RA. The women who were new to yoga had higher amounts of these markers in their blood than those who practiced yoga regularly.

“Experts are more flexible. We didn’t see an actual difference during the yoga session. But we found that the experienced yoga practitioners had less reaction to stressors, perhaps less physiological reactions to stressors. There is a remarkable amount of smoke out there about yoga – we think there’s fire,” says Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry and psychology who wanted to explore the benefits of exercise on people with various medical conditions. “We chose yoga to study because it’s low impact. It’s a whole lot easier to start yoga than to start jogging. Yoga has a lot of potential benefits.”

Other than the length of time the women in Kiecolt-Glaser’s study had practiced yoga, all were quite similar, she notes. Age, weight, physical function and other health behaviors were very similar among the participants. All reported improved mood after yoga, she says. “People all reported lower levels of anxiety and tension, of stress. By reducing negative mood, you can also reduce pain,” she says.

Other recent studies do show that yoga can help people with RA improve symptoms. A 2009 study conducted at the Dubai Bone and Joint Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, looked at the effects of a biweekly yoga program for people with RA. Twenty-six out of 47 study subjects participated in 12 yoga sessions and reported significant improvements in measurements of disease activity. 

In addition, an Indian study published this year looked at a week-long, intensive yoga program’s effects on people with RA. Sixty-four men and women with the disease were given tests for hand grip strength, rheumatoid factor (a blood marker often associated with inflammation) and C-reactive protein. All the participants showed reduced disability scores on the standardized Health Assessment Questionnaire measuring function, and reduced rheumatoid factor levels. In addition, some participants showed improved hand grip strength following a week of yoga.

An older study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994 also showed that yoga could provide relief for people with hand osteoarthritis, a common condition that can impair daily activities like dressing, driving a car or cooking. An eight-week yoga regimen improved hand pain, tenderness and finger range of motion in the participants.