March 28, 2015
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Alternative Medicine: Does the Research Support the Movement? Part 3: Yoga
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Alternative Medicine: Does the Research Support the Movement? Part 3: Yoga


More major medical centers are offering non-conventional therapies to their patients. But many people may still be wondering, how effective are they?

From acupuncture to yoga, there are a wide variety of methods available and the medical conditions that drive people to seek alternative medical practices are equally varied. Research into how these practices actually work on our bodies physiologically is still in its infancy – and the findings we do have are not always conclusive.

In this final segment of our series exploring CAM or Complementary and Alternative Medicine, we consider the health benefits of yoga.

As yoga becomes more mainstream in this country – both recreationally and therapeutically – many people may wonder what the measurable benefits actually are. There are a variety of current therapies involving yoga: there’s yoga for stress, depression, addiction, weight loss, building muscle, bone maintenance, and to help cancer patients with symptoms associated with treatment, particularly pain. But what has the science actually shown to be true for yoga?

There are a variety of current therapies involving yoga: there’s yoga for stress, depression, addiction, weight loss, building muscle, bone maintenance, and to help cancer patients with symptoms associated with treatment, particularly pain.

Here we dissect some of the research studies on the practice, highlighting some of the medical benefits that one might really gain from a yoga-based therapy. We’ll also offer some pointers for finding a medical professional who specializes in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and for doing your own research when it comes to exploring any area of CAM – yoga, meditation, or other alternative practices. Taking part in the best-researched methods and going to professionals who are the top of their game is the best advice for getting the most out of CAM, and staying safe in the process.

Yoga to Build Bones and Heal Muscles

One of the more popular reasons for doing yoga is an athletic one: it undeniably strengthens the body. But a promising application for yoga is that it also appears to help build bone density in people at risk of or already suffering from osteoporosis. It’s known that osteoporosis and its precursor, osteopenia, can be addressed in part by engaging in weight-bearing exercises to strengthen the bone.

Working from the observation that yoga practitioners tend to live “long and fracture-free” lives, one group of researchers found that engaging in just 10 minutes of yoga per day for two years helped increase bone density in the spine and hips. People who did not engage in yoga lost bone density over this time.(1)

Practices that address both our bodies and minds are clearly of great use when we are battling health problems that are physically and emotionally painful.

Yoga can also strengthen the shoulders, helping people recover from rotator cuff injuries. The rotator cuff includes the muscles and ligaments that connect the arm bone to the shoulder blade. Injury occurs frequently in baseball players or others who frequently raise the arm above the head. The conventional method of correcting rotator cuff injuries involves surgery to repair the muscle, which may or may not correct the problem.

Dr. Loren Fishman, MD, a specialist in rehabilitative medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia has found that a variation of a yoga headstand can help alleviate rotator cuff problems by training the surrounding muscle to take over for the torn muscle. In one study, participants who were taught the headstand variation, which can be done with the assistance of a chair, had significantly better movement of the affected arm along with greatly reduced pain, both immediately after and in the six-week follow-up period.(2)

Older patients with rotator cuff syndrome were helped considerably by learning how to do a movement called a triangular forearm support, in which one places the forearms against the wall and the hands behind the head.(3)

In Dr. Fishman’s opinion, yoga's main value as a medical therapy is to address bone and muscle problems, such as those mentioned above. He also uses yoga to help patients recover from back pain, arthritis, and even bunions. There’s less evidence, he says, that it works on the stress response system, but he believes strongly in its ability to help treat the more mechanical problems of muscles and bones.

Yoga for Pain Management

Because the yogic tradition aims at mental resilience as well as strengthening the body, it has been studied as a way to help people in chronic pain reduce their pain by controlling their perception of it, like acupuncture. And here, the picture is encouraging:

  • A study involving a 16-week yoga session helped significantly reduce mild, chronic back pain and it reduced patients' reliance on pain medications.(4)
  • Another study found that 12 week sessions of yoga significantly improved back function in people who suffered from chronic lower back pain, compared to people who engaged in conventional exercise programs or who were given a book on self-care.(5)

The strengths of these types of studies is that they are randomized, controlled trials, in which participants are assigned at random to take part in either the treatment group (yoga) or a control group.

  • A review study of randomized clinical trials looked at the role of yoga in addressing varieties of pain ranging from labor to osteoarthritis to irritable bowel syndrome to carpal tunnel syndrome. It found that in 9 out of the 10 studies included, yoga was associated with significantly better pain management than conventional treatments (the exception was irritable bowel syndrome pain). Since methods varied, however, as did the varieties of yoga used in the studies, the authors urge caution in the interpretation of the results and suggest that future studies continue to evaluate yoga using the gold standard that is the randomized clinical trial.
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