Yoga is an increasingly popular complementary or alternative therapy for musculoskeletal disorders, with millions of people practicing worldwide. Now you may want to think twice before trying the Downward Dog. Yoga as a form of exercise may not be quite as safe as previously thought.
The extensive study
A recent study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that yoga causes musculoskeletal pain in 10 percent of people, and exacerbates 21 percent of existing injuries.
While yoga can be beneficial for musculoskeletal pain, like any form of exercise, it can also result in musculoskeletal pain said Evangelos Pappas from the University of Sydney in Australia. A study found that the incidence of pain caused by yoga is more than 10 per cent per year, which is comparable to the injury rate of all sports injuries combined among the physically active population. However people consider it to be a very safe activity. This injury rate is up to 10 times higher than has previously been reported. The studies also found that yoga can exacerbate existing pain, with 21 per cent of existing injuries made worse by doing yoga, particularly pre-existing musculoskeletal pain in the upper limbs.
In terms of severity, more than one-third of cases of pain caused by yoga were serious enough to prevent yoga participation and lasted more than 3 months. The study found that most “new” yoga pain was in the upper extremities (shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand) possibly due to downward dog and similar postures that put weight on the upper limbs. It’s not all bad news, however, as 74 per cent of participants in the study reported that existing pain was improved by yoga, highlighting the complex relationship between musculoskeletal pain and yoga practice.
Considering it Just Like Another Exercise: A Myth
Staffan Elgelid, PhD, a yoga therapist and an associate professor in physical therapy at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., said yoga carries the same risks as other forms of exercise.
“If you take the same group of people and start them on a running, swimming, lifting, or any other form of exercise program, I think the percent of injuries would be similar or higher. The big problem is that yoga is billing itself as safe,” Elgelid said.
“I think one reason we are seeing more people complain of pain is that more and more people are turning to yoga for issues with pain that have not been resolved by allopathic medicine,” he added. “One big problem with that is that many yoga teachers do not have their clients fill out a medical history form, so the teacher has no idea if the student has any musculoskeletal issues or not, and therefore cannot modify the practice accordingly.”
Making Yoga Safe
These findings can be useful for clinicians and individuals to compare the risks of yoga to other exercise enabling them to make informed decisions about which types of activity are best.
Careful performance and participants telling their yoga teachers of injuries they may have prior to participation, as well as informing their healthcare professionals about their yoga practice might prevent pain caused by yoga.
We recommend that yoga teachers also discuss with their students the risks for injury if not practiced conscientiously, and the potential for yoga to exacerbate some injuries.
Yoga participants are encouraged to discuss the risks of injury and any pre-existing pain, especially in the upper limbs, with yoga teachers and physiotherapists to explore posture modifications that may results in safer practice.