May 24, 2012 (Honolulu, Hawaii) -- Young patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may feel better after practicing yoga for just six weeks, a new study shows.
Researchers reported their findings here last week at the American Pain Society's annual meeting.
"It seems to be a very feasible, practical treatment for patients with rheumatoid arthritis," one of the researchers, Kirsten Lung, tells WebMD. Lung researches pain at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
The results are not surprising to Kathleen Sluka, PhD, a physical therapist who researches pain at the University of Iowa. All kinds of physical activity can help with rheumatoid arthritis, she tells WebMD. Sluka was not involved in this study.
RA is a chronic type of arthritis. It is an autoimmune disease. It is most common among women. Early symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, and stiffness.
As it progresses, RA may feel like the flu, with muscle aches and loss of appetite. Early and effective treatment may help prevent joint and bone destruction.
An Alternative to Drugs
The UCLA researchers say some drugs for RA can pose additional risks for younger patients. So the researchers are looking for alternatives. They decided to try Iyengar yoga.
In Iyengar yoga, practitioners may use blocks, straps, cushions, and other props to stretch and strengthen their muscles.
The UCLA researchers recruited 26 women with RA. The women's ages ranged from 21 to 35. On average they had suffered from RA for 10 and a half years.
The researchers then assigned 11 of these women to classes in Iyengar yoga. They assigned the other 15 to a wait list for yoga classes.
After six weeks, they asked both groups about their condition. The group that practiced yoga said they were happier than when they started. They said they could better accept their pain. They also reported better general health and more energy.
The women on the wait list for yoga classes did not experience these improvements.
Even the women who did yoga did not report less pain or disability. That may be because the study was so short, says Lung. "But six weeks did a world of good for those involved."
Sluka says that physical exercise usually takes about eight weeks to show significant effects. All kinds of exercise can help with RA, she says. "Yoga is just another form of exercise," she says.
By strengthening muscles, exercise prevents joints from moving in uncomfortable ways. And it can activate parts of the nervous system that reduce pain.
The study is not conclusive, she points out, because it is very small. Also, there is a possibility that the people in the yoga group felt better just because they were doing something to help themselves, not specifically because they were doing yoga.
But the study is still worthwhile, Sluka says. It shows people with RA they have another option for getting exercise. "Some people like to run. Some people like to lift weights. Some people like to do yoga," she says.
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary, as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.