Back pain caused by osteoarthritis is a common affliction that can be effectively managed through a consistent yoga practice. Unlike other forms of back pain, osteoarthritis is not a condition that can be fully cured. That being said, osteoarthritis of the spine is not without options when it comes to living a healthy, mobile life. While it is tempting to use osteoarthritis as an excuse to stay sedentary, gentle activities—such as yoga—can be extremely beneficial.
Understanding Osteoarthritis of the Spine
Osteoarthritis affects the joints and disks of the spine and manifests as swelling and/or stiffness in the back. It occurs as a result of the deterioration of the cartilage that supports spinal movement. As we age, our cartilage gets drier and less malleable. The wear and impact of daily life takes its toll and, over time, individuals susceptible to the condition start to develop osteoarthritis. Unlike other parts of the body, osteoarthritis of the spine has the added factor of affecting the nerves of the spine. So, in addition to the general discomfort of having joints feel stiff and/or inflamed, the decreased cushioning in the spine can cause nerve compression. This additional compression of nerves can lead to other conditions and/or pain.
Osteoarthritis occurs most often in the middle-aged to elderly. That being said, juvenile arthritis does affect some youth. The development of osteoarthritis is dependent on genetics, lifestyle and environment. While some people may be more genetically susceptible to osteoarthritis of the spine, there are other factors that contribute or detract from the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis. Lifestyle—such as exercise and diet—absolutely affect joint health. Regular high impact activities can wear away cartilage and poor diet can increase inflammation in the joints. While these lifestyle choices may not have an apparent negative impact on the body when we are young but can surface later on in life. Extreme cold is also hard on the joints as it makes them stiffer.
Yoga and Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis can range from being uncomfortable to being downright painful. Moving the body becomes unpleasant and it can be easy to slip into a sedentary lifestyle. The right kind of movement is essential when it comes to keeping your osteoarthritis of the spine stable. In the moment, it may feel like movement is worse than staying still. Long term, however, moving your body in activities—such as yoga—will be much more beneficial than not moving at all. Here are five of the benefits of practicing yoga when you have osteoarthritis of the spine:
1. Yoga is no-impact
This means that you can move your body without giving your joints a pounding. There are even higher-intensity yoga classes that can offer an element of cardio so you can still get your heart rate up.
2. Yoga offers variations on poses
One of the best things about yoga is that you can adjust the practice to suit the needs of your body. This is especially useful for people with back pain as your body may need different variations of poses depending on the day.
3. Yoga incorporates full-body movement
Despite the fact that you may be focussed on keeping your spine happy, full-body movement means you get to mobilise the rest of your body as well. Nothing in the body exists in isolation so the more open and relaxed the rest of the body is, the better off your spine will be.
4. Yoga builds strength
A well-rounded yoga practice isn’t just about stretching. The strength work you do on your yoga mat will ultimately help to support your spine and alleviate the friction affecting your osteoarthritic spinal joints and disks.
5. Yoga involves meditation
Part of yoga is about working with your body where it is now, as oppose to where you think it should be. The meditation element of yoga will give you the tools to find acceptance for your osteoarthritis of your spine. Which is not to say that it will make you complacent about your condition. Rather it will teach you to work gracefully and fully within the limits of your body.
Getting Started with Yoga
The biggest challenge is always getting started. If you are new to yoga, take some time to find a style of yoga that feels good for you. It is becoming more common for physiotherapy clinics to offer condition-specific yoga classes so that might be a useful place to start. Otherwise, some people with osteoarthritis of the spine find that gentle classes in a heated practice room allow for less pain and more movement. However, you begin, be patient and be gentle. Your back will thank you.