You may be a fan of yoga because it helps to support flexibility, muscle strength, and tone. Or maybe your doctor recommended that you start practicing yoga because it may help to improve multiple sclerosis. Yoga has also been credited with improving heart health, respiration, energy levels, and vitality, as well as aiding some individuals with weight loss and depression. Many individuals who practice yoga regularly report that they “feel centered,” and it has helped to improve their overall athletic abilities in other fitness disciplines. Experts also share that yoga can protect you from injury and help individuals suffering with chronic pain.
But a study published in November 2016 suggests that, despite its many protective benefits, yoga injuries are on the rise.
A new yoga mantra that should be embraced, based on this new study, is “yoga is safe for most people, but beware your limitations.” The study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine examined the rates of injury in yoga, given the increasing popularity, especially in the U.S., and the fact that frequency of yoga injuries had not been well established.
Based on yoga data provided by the Yoga Journal and Journal Alliance, 36.7 million Americans (of all ages) participate in yoga. Researchers gathered data from the **National Electronic Injury Surveillance System **(NEISS) from 2001 to 2014, estimating yoga participant distribution and ages from data provided by the national health Statistics Reports. Injury rates overall were gathered and then the yoga injuries were extrapolated.
The researchers found 29,590 yoga-related injuries between 2001 and 2014. About 46.4 percent of the injuries involved the trunk area of the body and the most frequent diagnosis (45 percent) was sprain or strain. There was a noted trend of increasing injuries during that period, and the most injured were seniors over age 65, followed by individuals 45 to 64 years old. The lowest rate of injury was among individuals age 18 to 44 years old.
I recently spoke to Julie Cerrone, a yoga instructor and patient advocate and writer at HealthCentral, as she herself was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. She looks at yoga as part of her treatment plan. Having an autoimmune-based arthritis, she knows the importance of keeping her joints moving. Lack of movement can allow the famous “use or fuse” phenomenon, in which joints develop increasing inflammation and limited motion because the individual is not keeping joints healthy and moving. In the early days of her diagnosis, weight-bearing was nearly impossible, so she did chair yoga in an effort to keep her body moving. Yoga provided a sense of calm and really enhanced the healing process for her.
She is intuitive when she experiences flare ups of psoriatic arthritis, returning to the chair and mat poses rather than taxing her body with more advanced poses — an approach that likely helps to prevent injury, especially when significant joint inflammation is present. Many students of yoga seek her guidance and help because she knows how to modify practices and poses if they have any physical limitations. Her feeling is that, “Anyone can do yoga, as long as you know the appropriate modifications.” Individuals with Julie’s type of personal health history, experience, and expertise would likely be helpful to others who want to practice yoga, helping to limit the very injuries that this study focused on.
It seems intuitive that if you're older and a beginner, your body may need significant time before it can handle the type of flexibility necessary to perform a number of the more advanced yoga poses.
Younger individuals could also be at risk of repetitive injuries if they move too quickly through levels of challenge in yoga poses, or if they do too many consecutive days of challenging yoga poses too early in the learning phases of yoga. As Julie pointed out, if you have a chronic disease that has the potential to limit movement, or that has periodic flare up, then making appropriate accommodations would likely limit injuries dramatically.
Some quick tips to avoid injury:
- If you’re a beginner, seek a yoga practitioner who offers introductory classes
- Join a yoga group similar in age and ability level
- If you have a history of past injuries or have physical limitations, make the instructor aware so that they can offer modified poses to you
- Try out different types of yoga so you find a good match for your level, abilities, and needs
- Pace yourself in the early days and months of practice
- Never do a pose that scares or intimidates you
- Cross-train with other exercises like swimming and weight training to challenge your muscle groups
Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.