How yoga helps ankylosing spondylitis

Lower back pain can be debilitating. Pain caused by ankylosing spondylitis (AS) may be especially severe. Conventional pain relief medications may cause uncomfortable side effects. If you’re looking for an alternative treatment, yoga may help.

Yoga uses gentle stretching exercises to help relieve pain and increase flexibility. It helps stabilize your core to better support your spine.

A 2012 meta-analysis of 10 studies found yoga helps relieve chronic lower back pain. The study also concluded yoga can be recommended as a therapy to back pain patients who do not improve with other self-care treatments.

Yoga’s benefits for AS patients aren’t just physical. According to a 2012 study published in Indian Journal of Palliative Care, yoga promotes relaxation and helps reduce anxiety. It may also calm your nervous system, reduce pain and fatigue, and help you cope with the emotional issues of dealing with a chronic illness.

Performing a single yoga pose now and then probably won’t do much to relieve back pain. Consistency is key. Doing a series of yoga poses daily may be more likely to bring you pain relief.

When you do yoga is important, too. You may be too stiff when you wake up to do a full routine. Choose a time of day when your muscles are more relaxed. You can also break up poses throughout the day. Try easier poses in the morning and more difficult ones later.

Here are nine yoga poses that may help relieve AS pain:

1. Child’s pose

The child’s pose stretches your lower back and hips. The Art of Living offers video instructions on how to do it properly.

2. Bridge pose

The bridge pose stretches the spine, neck and chest. View step-by-step instructions from Yoga Journal.

3. Downward facing dog

Downward facing dog stretches your back and promotes flexibility. The Art of Living offers tips for getting this beginner pose right.

4. Cobra pose

The snake (cobra) pose stretches your back, lungs, and chest by lifting your chest off the floor while straightening your arms. Yoga Journal provides instructions on how to do it properly.

5. Locust pose

The locust pose strengthens lower back muscles. Yoga Basics provides directions and variations for beginners.

6. Mountain pose

The mountain pose is a simple stretch with a big impact. Gaia explains how to do this pose correctly to improve posture.

7. Cat pose

The cat pose strengthens and elongates your spine and neck. Yoga Learning Center shows you how.

8. Cow pose

The cow pose warms the spine and releases spine tension. Yoga Journal tells you how to do the pose and how to transition between cow and cat poses.

9. Staff pose

The staff pose strengthens your core, improves posture, and stretches your neck and shoulders. Yoga International offers instructions and breathing tips to help you get the most out of this stretch.

AS is an inflammatory condition. The inflammation may cause some of the vertebrae in your lower back to fuse together. It may also affect other areas, such as the:

  • areas where bones attach to tendons and ligaments
  • cartilage between your breastbone and ribs
  • hip and shoulder joints
  • joint between the base of your spine and your pelvis
  • eyes
  • heels

AS symptoms may be sporadic. They may get worse or improve at times. Lower back pain is the hallmark symptom of AS. Other symptoms may include:

  • stiffness in your lower back and hips
  • worsening pain and stiffness in the morning or after periods of inactivity
  • buttock pain
  • difficulty breathing deeply
  • red eyes
  • blurred vision
  • light sensitivity
  • hunched posture

Advanced AS may involve the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.

Learn more: Tips for beating ankylosing spondylitis fatigue »

It’s not clear what causes AS. It does have a strong genetic disposition, though. The condition is diagnosed through a physical exam, blood tests, and radiologic tests, such as X-rays.

Blood tests check for the human leukocyte antigen B27 (HLA-B27). If you’re positive for the antigen, you may be at risk of developing AS. Although many people with AS are positive for HLA-B27, not everyone with the antigen develops the disease.

You may also have a higher risk if:

  • you’re a man
  • you’re an adolescent or young adult
  • you have a family history of AS

AS is a chronic condition, and there isn’t a cure. Treatments are aimed at managing the disease by relieving pain and preventing spinal defects. Treatment options include natural remedies and medication, such as:

  • over-the-counter NSAIDs to reduce inflammation
  • medications that block inflammation-causing TNF proteins
  • physical therapy and yoga to increase range-of-motion, flexibility, and posture
  • joint replacement surgery and spinal surgery

The National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society (NASS) of Britain recommends yoga to help relieve AS pain. Yoga may also improve your range-of-motion and flexibility. But its benefits don’t stop there. Yoga’s deep breathing promotes ribcage expansion to improve breathing. It also relieves stress and helps you relax.

Keep in mind that some yoga poses may be difficult or even painful at first. But don’t give up! Take it slow and easy, and listen to your body. Some mild pain is normal during or after the first few times you do yoga stretches. If pain is severe, stop the movement.

Some forms of yoga are more intensive than others. For example, Bikram yoga is practiced in a heated, humid room. Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa yoga are more fast-paced. If you’re considering taking a yoga class, you may want to start with Hatha yoga. This type is slower-paced and concentrates on stretching. Before trying yoga to treat AS, you should consult with your doctor.