Yoga May Help Correct Abnormal Spinal Curvature in Elderly
Elderly women with an excessive curvature of the upper part of the spine (hyperkyphosis) may benefit from practicing yoga, according to a study in American Journal of Public Health (2002;92:1611–4). Specific yoga poses that target the upper back appear to help straighten the spine and restore physical function.
Hyperkyphosis is a common condition in elderly people that affects the spine from the base of the neck to the top of the low back. Excessive curvature in the thoracic spine leads to the “hunched over” appearance often seen in these individuals. Hyperkyphosis is not usually painful, but may restrict one’s ability to perform daily activities, such as standing from the seated position, reaching for objects, and bending over.
Some cases of hyperkyphosis are caused by vertebral fractures, and in those cases the spinal curvature is presumably irreversible. However, only about half of people with this condition have a history a vertebral fracture. In many cases, the curvature may be due in part to poor posture or muscle weakness, factors that may be modified by doing yoga. In general, yoga is considered a safe therapy that can be started at any age.
In the new study, 21 women with hyperkyphosis between the ages of 60 and 86 years participated in one-hour yoga classes, twice a week for 12 weeks. The program included four specific poses that concentrate on the upper back. Every three weeks, more challenging poses were introduced. Measurements of height and upper back curvature were taken at the beginning and end of the study. Several tests of physical performance were also conducted.
After 12 weeks of yoga, the average height of the women increased by more than half a centimeter and there was slight improvement in the curvature of the spine. Tests of physical function also demonstrated improvement, suggesting that the spine had become more flexible. Some 63% of the women reported a sense of greater well-being and 58% perceived an improvement in physical functioning.
Yoga is a practice that dates back more than 2,000 years. Although there are many styles of yoga, the goal of each style is to bring the body to a state of awareness and relaxation through a series of specific poses. Special emphasis is placed on slow, deep breathing during each pose, and on properly aligning the body. The poses vary from simple to complex, depending on the experience of each person. Many people who practice yoga report increased muscle strength, better flexibility and balance, decreased back pain, a feeling of being more relaxed, and an overall feeling of well-being. While yoga has no known adverse effects if mindfully practiced according to the traditional alignment principles, people with certain joint or muscle conditions should consult a physician before beginning a yoga program.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of The Natural Pharmacist: Lowering Cholesterol (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice at New England Family Health Associates located in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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