Because there are only so many medical options to treat multiple sclerosis, and many of them carry some sort of unwanted side effects, a lot of people seek out alternative sources of relief. There is no cure for the disease, and a lot of the treatments, while required to help manage the course of the disease, leave behind some of the pain and residual symptoms that are often controlled with pain medications or muscle relaxers that can leave patients groggy.
With complementary and alternative therapies, patients find ways of managing those lingering symptoms that can be crushing when trying to live a full and normal life. Yoga is one such alternative option, and unlike some of these treatments, there have been a few studies done regarding how yoga can help treat multiple sclerosis symptoms.
What is yoga?
Yoga began with the Hindu culture, and in its essence, is considered a spiritual and ascetic discipline.
Essential parts of yoga include:
- Control of breathing
- Meditation in its simplest form
- The learning and use of specific body postures for stretching and limberness
Yoga has become extremely popular in western culture for its therapeutic effects. It is exercise that isn’t overly taxing on the body, and it aids greatly in relaxation. It’s also shown to provide a number of health benefits to the masses, such as:
- Increased flexibility
- Improved muscle mass and muscle tone
- Better respiration
- Higher energy levels and vitality
- More balanced metabolism
- Better weight control
- Improved cardiovascular health and circulation
- Less risk of injury
What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative autoimmune disease. The immune system turns on the body and attacks the protective coating of the central nervous system, known as myelin, which not only keeps the nervous fibers safe but also promotes speed in sending electrical impulses between the CNS and peripheral nerves in the body. As the myelin is “eaten”, the nerves don’t process as quickly, and some become damaged. The peripheral nerves can experience degeneration and death. In many cases, inflammation within the CNS also exacerbates symptoms and leads to relapses of multiple sclerosis.
The illness is chronic and unpredictable, and over time, it can progress and lead to disability. There are treatments to slow the progression and help with symptoms, but yoga has proven to be an excellent management tool, even without chemical assistance in easing the pain.
Studies on yoga and MS
A 2014 study showed that patients who practiced yoga on a regular basis had improvement in walking and balance, greater coordination with fine motor skills, and could get up and down from a seated position with greater ease. Pain and fatigue lessened as well over time. They also reported increased mental health, better concentration, improved vision, and more dependable bladder control.
How it works
Yoga promotes better breathing and posture, which can help strengthen muscles and combat weakness, as well as muscle pain and atrophy. It can also assist in increasing flexibility, helping patients to combat stiffness. Increased stamina can help MS sufferers function longer without exhaustion and fatigue, especially since (like most exercise) it releases endorphins that promote happiness and a more positive attitude.
Patients with multiple sclerosis also have trouble connecting with their changing bodies. Yoga helps put people back in touch with their full bodies, as well as each of its parts, and how they continue to function or don’t. This benefit, as well as the relief from pain, can help patients feel much more comfortable in their own skin.
Balance and circulation also improve with yoga, which promotes safer mobility as well as stronger bones, reducing the chances of osteoporosis.
Yoga for severe MS
While it may be more difficult for those with extremely advanced multiple sclerosis to practice yoga alone, since holding a position might be impossible, there are ways that yoga can benefit these patients as well for rehabilitation purposes. If flexibility and strength interfere, blocks and assistive devices can come into play.
In addition, there are types of yoga that can work even for the disabled, including chair yoga, which focuses on exercises and poses that can be performed in a wheelchair. As long as the patient seeks out an instructor with experience in working with students who have disabilities and keep their doctors informed of the decision to explore yoga as an additional treatment method, these patients can regain some musculoskeletal strength and improve overall perspective by taking part in yoga.
Unlike many alternative treatments, yoga has been shown through a study at Rutgers to help improve the impact of symptoms on life for MS patients. Some of the first things affected by multiple sclerosis are mobility, flexibility, and mood, due to the attack on the central nervous system. Yoga can assist in reducing the effects of all of these without the need to add more medications to the regimen.
Expectations upon beginning should be contained, since a patient will likely be stiff and have difficulty. It won’t look or feel like it’s helping during the first couple of sessions. That’s due to the damaged and unused parts of the body just beginning to recover, which takes time. Some soreness can also be expected as the muscles grow accustomed to the workout.