Is adding movement to your body such as doing yoga good for you if you have arthritis?
Can yoga, which improves flexibility for practitioners, actually help reduce arthritic symptoms?
There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests yoga, under the guidance of a qualified yoga teacher, can improve the quality of life for people with arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is an umbrella term for many conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid, juvenile, fibromyalgia and other conditions that result in joint pain.
The common condition across arthritic conditions is some form of joint disease, including inflammation of the tissue surrounding and connecting joints (although some forms may be noninflammatory joint disease as well). It can also be damage or disease of the bone at the joint connection(s).
Can yoga treat or offer therapeutic benefits arthritis?
One must be careful to distinguish “treat” and “therapeutic benefits”. The two are very different. Treat is a term that should be restricted to processes that have been scientifically proven via clinical studies to heal fully or in part the condition. Therapeutic benefit, on the other hand, may not improve the condition itself, but may improve quality of life such as reducing discomfort of the symptoms. This is why in the medical literature refers to it as “yoga therapy” instead of “yoga treatment.”
For example, pain medication such as Tylenol doesn’t often treat a condition, but it does offer therapeutic benefit by reducing or eliminating pain.
To date, there is no evidence to suggest that yoga “treats” arthritis, but it can help with respect to improving the quality of life for people with arthritis. See 3 referenced studies below.
How does yoga help people with arthritis?
The primary benefits of doing yoga if you have arthritis are as follows:
- Improve mobility
- Reduce pain disability
- Reduce depression
- Improve mood
Take a Look at Clinical Studies
Study A 
One study was set up to determine whether yoga can help reduce symptoms for young women (average age of 28) with rheumatoid arthritis. The study had 26 participants who did Iyengar yoga for 6 weeks (twice a week).
At the end of the 6 weeks, the participants on average, reported lower pain disability and improved mood. The improvements remained 2 months after the program.
Another point of interest is that there were no adverse effects of the yoga program on participants suggesting this form of yoga was a safe type of yoga for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Study B 
Another study looked at whether hatha yoga offered any benefit to for osteoarthritis of the knee joints.
250 people from 35 to 80 years of age participated. The study compared hatha yoga therapy to therapeutic exercises.
The study concluded that hatha yoga therapy is better than therapeutic exercises. Note that all participants also received transcutaneous electrical stimulation and ultrasound treatment.
The hatha yoga benefits included improved range of knee flexion, walking pain, walking duration, tenderness and swelling.
Study C 
64 people with rheumatoid arthritis did one week of yoga. Yoga was done twice a day for a total of 5 hours of yoga a day (intensive yoga program). The yoga included breathing exercises, loosening exercises and asanas. The focus of the study was to see if a one week intensive yoga program could improve hand function. The results revealed that at the end of the study, there was a “significant decrease in the Disability Index on the last day compared to the first [day].
Functionally speaking the decreased disability of hand function made performing many activities dependent on hand-use easier and less painful.
There are other studies looking at yoga’s potential benefits for people with arthritis. Most studies include participants with either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. In all studies I looked at, yoga provided some level of benefit.
That said, other literature (and I agree) suggests that more research needs to be done on yoga as a therapy for arthritis conditions.
How Do You Choose a Yoga Style if You Have Arthritis?
One approach to choosing a yoga style if you have arthritis is to refer back to the types of yoga practiced in the clinical studies that showed an improved quality of life. If this approach is taken, one form of yoga that did demonstrate improvement for arthritis sufferers was Iyengar yoga (also known as restorative yoga). This makes sense because Iyengar yoga is a gentle yoga that focuses on precision to improve the body’s alignment.
It’s important to note that Iyengar yoga includes literally thousands of poses; therefore putting together a safe and effective routine should be done by a trained yoga teacher.
Just because a study used a particular form of yoga doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Moreover, it doesn’t mean you can simply buy a DVD and/or a book teaching that style of yoga and pursue it on your own. It’s a really good idea to look for a yoga teacher who has experience and training teaching yoga to people with arthritis.
Another approach to choosing a style of yoga is to pursue a yoga program under the careful guidance of a yoga teacher who has training in teaching yoga for arthritis sufferers. The teacher may incorporate a variety of styles in your yoga program designed to improve symptoms (i.e. pain, mobility, depression and mood).
Yoga can be intense, physically challenging and gentle. If you pursue yoga for your arthritis, be careful, choose a qualified teacher and talk to your doctor first. While there is a decent amount of evidence that yoga is good for reducing arthritis pain and increasing mobility, yoga, when done improperly can result in injury.
Please consult a physician before starting any exercise program, including a yoga practice. If pursuing yoga to treat a condition such as arthritis, do so under the guidance of a medical doctor and certified yoga teacher, preferably a yoga teacher who is trained and has experience teaching yoga for the condition.
 WebMD. Understanding Arthritis – the Basics. http://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/guide/understanding-arthritis-basics
 Evans S, Moieni M, Lung K, Tsao J, Sternlieb B, Taylor M, Zeltzer L. Impact of Iyengar Yoga on Quality of Life in Young Women with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Clin J Pain. 2013 Jan 30.
 Ebnezar J, Nagarathna R, Yogitha B, Nagendra HR. Effects of an integrated approach of hatha yoga therapy on functional disability, pain, and flexibility in osteoarthritis of the knee joint: a randomized controlled study. J Altern Complement Med. 2012 May;18(5):463-72.
 BMC Res Notes. 2011 Apr 12;4:118. Telles S, Naveen KV, Gaur V, Balkrishna A. Effect of one week of yoga on function and severity in rheumatoid arthritis.