Are My Feet Killing Me?

“My feet are killing me!” is a common phrase we hear. But could it be true? Maybe not quite, but problems with the feet can indicate a more serious condition in another part of the body that may need medical attention.
[healthy feet]
Healthy feet, healthy body.

Reflexologists and proponents of foot massage around the world have long claimed that manipulating points of the feet can improve the health of internal organs. There is little evidence to prove this, but it is clear that aspects of a person’s general health sometimes find expression in the feet.

In this article, we will look at 10 things that the feet can reveal about the condition of the rest of the body.

The feet bear the weight of the whole body when we stand or walk.

The feet contain a quarter of the body’s bones. Each foot has 33 joints, 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments; and countless nerves and blood vessels that link all the way to the heart, spine, and brain.

It is hardly surprising, then, that when the feet are out of line, it affects the whole body. Keeping the feet in good condition is of vital importance to our well-being.

1. Foot cramping and spasms

Muscle spasms, commonly known as Charley horses, can be uncomfortable, but they can also be signs of deficiencies in the body.

The spasms can be caused by dehydration. Insufficient hydration can mean that the muscles are not getting enough oxygen and that there is a lack or imbalance of electrolytes or nutrients, especially sodium, calcium, potassium, or magnesium. This could be a side effect of diuretic medication, which aims to reduce excess fluid in the body.

If the spasms happen while walking, it could indicate a circulatory problem.

Spasms can also result from overexertion, or not stretch enough when exercising. Finally, the type of shoes might contribute, for example, changing from flat shoes to high heels.

2. An enlarged big toe

Gout can cause the toe to be red, hot, swollen and extremely painful. Gout is the most common type of inflammatory arthritis among men.

Fast facts about feet

  • There are around 250,000 sweat glands in a pair of feet, producing around 1/2 pint of sweat daily
  • When a person runs, their feet bear three to four times their body weight
  • In the U.S., around 19 percent of the population have 1.4-foot problems each year.

It is a type of inflammatory arthritis that happens when too much uric acid, or monosodium urate, builds up in the tissues and fluids of the body.

As uric acid crystals tend to collect in the coolest part of the body, gout normally manifests in the big toe, and this is where the symptoms tend to appear first.

People who are overweight or obese, and those with poor circulation, are more prone.

Alcohol, a meat-rich diet, and some medications can add to the risk.

Anti-inflammatory medications can help, but recurrent gout can lead to a degenerative kind of arthritis called gouty arthritis.

Gout also increases the risk of kidney stones.

3. Cold feet, warm heart?

Not quite. Cold feet can indicate a range of problems, including poor circulation, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and anemia.

Feet that change color, from red to white to blue, may be a sign of Raynaud’s disease, in which blood vessels narrow when the nerves overreact to the cold.

For people with primary Raynaud’s, avoiding cold and tobacco normally helps; but 20 percent of cases stem from an underlying disease, especially of the connective tissues. This can be more serious.

4. Swollen feet

Swollen feet can indicate a wide range of problems, some of which can be life-threatening.

They range from poor circulation and related heart failure, kidney or liver failure, to deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or a blood clot, lymphatic buildup and cellulitis, among others.

If there is redness, warmth, and inflammation, there could be an infection.

Bruising and swelling suggests a sprain or fracture.

Painless swelling in the feet happens when fluid builds up in the body, and gravity means that it collects in the feet.

Home treatment includes raising the feet when sitting down, exercising the legs, reducing salt intake, and avoiding tight clothes. Losing weight may help some people.

5. Spoon-shaped toenails

Concave toenails, or koilonychia, is not just unsightly, but it can also be a sign of systemic disease.

It is mainly associated with nutritional deficiencies, and especially iron-deficiency anemia. Anemia is linked to malnutrition, internal bleeding, malignancy, and celiac disease.
Discolored toenails and wounds that do not heal suggest a systemic disorder that needs medical attention.

Spoon-shaped toenails can also be a sign of a genetic disorder, circulatory problems, autoimmune diseases, and musculoskeletal conditions.

6. Colored toenails

Yellow toenails are common among women who always wear nail polish, but they can be a sign of something more serious.

Conditions linked to yellowing toenails include tuberculosis (TB), jaundice due to liver problems, inflammation of the thyroid gland, and even sinusitis.

They can also indicate bronchiectasis, a lung condition that can lead to breathing problems.

A variety of nail colors and textures can reflect an even wider variety of systemic problems. If there is discoloration or deformity of the nails, and this is not linked to the use of cosmetics, it might be a good idea to seek medical advice.

7. ‘Pins and needles’

Numbness or tingling in the feet can be a sign of circulatory problems or damage to the peripheral nervous system, possibly a trapped nerve or one of a range of diseases.

In people with diabetes, long exposure to high blood glucose can cause nerve damage, and this can lead to tingling in the feet. According to the National MS Society, numbness or “pins and needles” in the extremities is often one of the first signs of multiple sclerosis (MS). Rarely, numbness or tingling can be a sign of a tumor or a stroke.

8. Aching toe joints

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that affects the bones in the joints. The first signs are usually in the hands and feet, and the ankles and feet of 90 percent of people with the condition will be affected.

In rheumatoid arthritis, the lining of the joints, or synovium, becomes swollen and inflamed. The joint and supporting ligaments and tissues are damaged, leading to decreased mobility.

There may be a deformity, such as claw toe or hammer toe. As the bones soften, stress

fractures and bone collapse may result.

Rest, ice, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can help to relieve symptoms and reduce pain and inflammation.

Shoe inserts can help to minimize pressure and correct the shape of the foot, and some people wear a brace.

Steroid injections can reduce inflammation in the early stages, but surgery may be necessary eventually.

9. Foot drop

If a person has foot drop, or drop foot, they cannot lift the front part of the foot. This is a sign of an underlying muscular, neurological, or anatomical problem.

There may be nerve or muscle damage as far up as the neck or shoulder. It may cause the foot to drag when walking, or the individual may develop an unusual gait, lifting their thigh to enable the foot to clear the floor.

Foot drop can result from a nerve injury in the leg or damage during a hip operation. Sometimes it is related to a neurological disease such as polio, or a brain or spinal cord disorder. A person with multiple sclerosis or stroke may have foot drop.

Treatment and its outcomes depend on the underlying cause. A brace or splint may help to maintain a normal foot position, physical therapy can help with gait, and nerve stimulation sometimes helps to lift the foot.

Surgery may be offered to treat the nerves, to fuse the bones, or to correct the position of tendons.

10. Persistent sores

A common symptom of diabetes is neuropathy or damage to the nerves. This means that patients are unable to feel or notice injuries, for example, having a stone in the foot or a blister.

If the injuries get worse and become infected, they can lead to ulcers and gangrene, and the need for amputation. Nerve damage can also cause the feet and toes to change shape.

Other signs of diabetes that appear in the feet include dry, cracked, and peeling skin, calluses, and poor circulation.

So, next time you have a minor problem with your feet, take note. Your feet may not be killing you, but they could be alerting you to a more serious problem.

How Can Diabetes Affect the Feet?

People with diabetes are prone to foot problems caused by prolonged periods of high blood sugar. There are two main foot problems, each of which can have serious complications.

Diabetes is a disease where the body cannot produce insulin or cannot use it effectively. Insulin is the hormone that is responsible for helping the cells take in sugar to use for energy. When this does not happen properly, the levels of sugar in the blood can become too high.

Prolonged periods of high sugar levels in the blood can wreak havoc on many areas of the body, including the feet.

Diabetic foot problems

Doctor checking a patients feet
Over time, diabetes may cause neuropathy in the feet, which may result in a loss of feeling.

The two main foot problems that affect people with diabetes are:

Diabetic neuropathy

Over time, diabetes can cause nerve damage that makes it hard for people with diabetes to feel sensation in their extremities.

The condition also makes it difficult for a person to feel an irritation on their foot or notice when their shoes are rubbing. This lack of sensation and awareness leads to an increase in the risk of cuts, sores, and blisters developing.

Peripheral vascular disease

Diabetes leads to changes in the blood vessels, including arteries. In peripheral vascular disease, fatty deposits block these vessels beyond the brain and heart. It tends to affect the blood vessels leading to and from the extremities, reducing blood flow to the hands and feet.

Reduced blood flow can lead to pain, infection, and slow healing wounds. Severe infections may lead to amputation.

Symptoms

Symptoms may vary from person to person and may depend on what issues a person is experiencing at the time. Symptoms of diabetic foot problems can include the following:

  • loss of feeling
  • numbness or tingling sensation
  • blisters or other wounds without painful
  • skin discoloration
  • skin temperature changes
  • red streaks
  • wounds with or without drainage
  • painful tingling
  • staining on socks
  • deformed foot appearance

If an infection is present in a foot or foot ulcer, a person may also experience some of the following:

  • fever
  • chills
  • uncontrollable blood sugar
  • shaking
  • shock
  • redness

Anyone who experiences any of the symptoms of an infection should seek emergency treatment.

Complications

Diabetic neuropathy and peripheral vascular disease are serious conditions that must be monitored closely. Both cause complications that can have serious negative effects. These complications may include:

  • foot ulcers, or wounds, that do not heal
  • infections, including skin infections, bone infections, and abscesses
  • gangrene, when an infection causes tissue death
  • foot deformity
  • Charcot’s Foot (fractures or dislocations in the foot that may cause deformities)

When to see a doctor

Swollen left foot
Immediate medical attention should be sought if there are changes to the feet such as skin color, persistent sores, tingling, and swelling of the foot or ankle.

People who have diabetes should see a doctor regularly as part of their care. However, they should seek immediate medical attention if they notice any of the following:

  • changes in foot skin color
  • swelling in the foot or ankle
  • temperature changes in the feet
  • persistent sores on the feet
  • pain or tingling in the feet or ankles
  • ingrown toenails
  • athlete’s foot or other foot fungal infections
  • dry and cracked skin on the heels
  • signs of infection

Treatment

Treatment for diabetic foot problems varies according to the severity of the condition. A range of surgical and nonsurgical options is available.

Nonsurgical treatment

Nonsurgical options are normally the first method of treatment for diabetic foot problems. Some of these include:

  • keeping wounds clean and dressed
  • immobilization devices, such as a cast boot or total contact cast
  • close observation of gangrene toes until self-amputation occurs, when the toes fall off due to lack of blood flow

Surgical treatment

When nonsurgical treatment fails to heal diabetic foot problems, surgery may be considered. Surgical treatment options include:

  • removal of decaying or dead tissue
  • amputation, varying from toe or part of the foot to amputation of the leg below the knee, or above the knee in some cases
  • surgical stabilization of Charcot’s Foot
  • arterial bypass for peripheral vascular disease, or endovascular surgery with placement of stents

Diabetic foot care

lady having a bath
Examining the feet daily and keeping them clean is recommended to prevent diabetic foot problems.

Preventing diabetic foot problems is essential for people who have diabetes. Keeping feet healthy is important, and a person should be vigilant about foot hygiene. They can take the following steps:

  • Check feet each day: Examine the feet daily, or ask someone to check for any changes or injuries.
  • Wash feet daily: Keeping feet clean helps to prevent infections.
  • Wear supportive shoes and socks: It is important to keep feet protected in socks and shoes at all times. A podiatrist may recommend shoes to help prevent deformities. Socks should not be too tight so as to restrict blood flow.
  • Promote blood flow to the feet: Putting feet up when sitting, wiggling toes periodically, and getting enough exercise helps promote healthy blood flow to the feet.
  • Trim nails carefully: Trim toenails straight across and keep them short. Rounded nails can cause ingrown toenails, which can lead to infection.
  • Care for corns and bunions: Treat corns and bunions carefully. Corns should never be shaved as this increases the risk of infection.
  • Protect feet from extreme temperatures: Exposure to hot and cold can damage diabetic feet.
  • Get feet checked regularly: Regular examinations by a doctor are key to preventing infections, amputations, and serious deformities.
  • Control blood sugar: Uncontrolled blood sugar raises the likelihood of podiatric complications from diabetes,
  • Avoid smoking: Smoking adversely affects the blood flow to the tissues.

Preventing diabetic foot problems

Diabetes can cause serious foot problems that can result in loss of the feet or limbs, deformity, and infections. However, many of these problems can be prevented or minimized.

While controlling blood sugar by following the recommended treatment plans is the best way to prevent these serious problems, self-care and regular check-ups with a doctor can prevent diabetic foot problems as well.

Yoga a Helpful Treatment for Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes significant musculoskeletal pain, along with changes in the ability to sleep, think, and remember.

The name for the disease comes from a combination of Latin and Greek terms, including fibro, or fibrous tissue, myo, meaning muscle, and algia, meaning pain.

Doctors often consider fibromyalgia to be an arthritis-related condition, but it is different from typical arthritic conditions in that, although it causes pain, it does not cause significant damage to muscles or joints.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three medications to treat fibromyalgia. However, these medications do not cure the condition, so doctors may recommend that people with fibromyalgia look to alternative therapies, such as yoga, to alleviate pain and muscle stiffness.

How might yoga help with fibromyalgia?

Yoga is a practice that incorporates self-care measures, such as relaxation, meditation, and deep breathing. It is a meditative movement practice that involves engaging in a series of coordinated movements while focusing on breathing, relaxation, meditation, or a combination. Similar practices include Tai chi and qi gong.

People doing yoga in the park
Yoga is an ancient Indian meditative movement practice that is used commonly today.

Many different types of yoga exist. Some focus on slow, controlled movements, while others can be as intensive as a hard run:

  • Hatha yoga is the most common type of yoga taught at most American yoga classes
  • Restorative yoga is a low-effort, but rejuvenating practice incorporating assistive devices, such as blankets, bolsters, and blocks
  • Ashtanga yoga is an intense and challenging style that involves practicing a specific series of poses in the same order
  • Bikram yoga involves progressing through 26 poses in a heated room
  • Vinyasa yoga is a continuous, flowing type of yoga that can be physically challenging

Doctors have not defined a specific type of yoga that is best for people with fibromyalgia. Anyone practicing yoga should take into account any personal physical limitations, especially if they plan to engage in intense exercise or want to exercise in hot temperatures.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), while research regarding the effectiveness of yoga in benefitting those with fibromyalgia is “promising,” there is not enough evidence to conclusively determine that yoga can help people who have the disorder.

Several research studies and analyses have been conducted regarding yoga and fibromyalgia:

  • A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, summarized the effects an 8-week course of yoga and meditation had on 11 people with fibromyalgia. Following the study, participants reported significant improvements in the number of days they “felt good” and did not miss work for reasons related to fibromyalgia. However, participants did not report decreased incidences of pain and fatigue.
  • A 2013 analysis of three research studies, published in the Journal of Pain Research, found that yoga helped to reduce sleep disturbances, fatigue, and depression while also improving the quality of life. However, the authors noted that there are not enough significant studies to confirm a link between yoga and reduced symptoms of fibromyalgia.
  • A 2010 research study published in the journal Pain studied 53 female fibromyalgia patients who participated in an 8-week Yoga of Awareness program. This program included meditation, breathing exercises, gentle poses, and yoga-based instructions for coping with symptoms. After finishing the program, the participants reported significant improvements in measures of pain, fatigue, and mood associated with fibromyalgia.

Three yoga poses for fibromyalgia

Many yoga poses could potentially benefit a person with fibromyalgia, but some specific poses are recommended in the book Yoga for Fibromyalgia by Shoosh Crotzer. However, before embarking on this type of exercise, it is best to talk to a doctor. All of these poses have variations that people can adopt according to their ability.

Standing forward bend, or Uttanasana, yoga pose
The Uttanasana pose may be recommended as beneficial to people with fibromyalgia.

Standing forward bend, or Uttanasana:

The standing forward bend pose involves standing with the feet hip-width apart and bending forward from the hip joints. If possible, people should place their fingertips or palms on the floor. If they cannot stretch this much, they should place their palms on the tops of the thighs or calves instead.

After staying in this position for 30-60 seconds, slowly roll the body up until standing up straight. Anyone with a bad back may prefer to keep their knees bent.

Bridge pose, or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana:

The person starts lying on the floor on their back. Bend the knees, putting both feet on the floor. They should straighten their arms and, if possible, clasp them together as they exhale and lift their tailbone off the floor, tightening the buttocks as they lift. Hold this pose anywhere from 30-60 seconds. They should then exhale as they slowly roll their lower back and spine toward the floor.

To protect the neck and reduce discomfort while lying face-up on the floor, a rolled-up blanket can be placed under the shoulders. Anyone with a history of neck injury should avoid this pose.

Cobra pose, or Bhujangasana:

The cobra pose can stretch tired legs and open up the chest muscles. To perform this pose, people should lie face-down on the floor and put their hands under their shoulders, palms on the floor. Put the elbows back toward the body. Inhale and push into the palms, straightening the arms until the upper body is lifted off the floor. However, people shouldn’t lift their feet or pelvic bone off the floor. Feel the stretch across the chest and in the lower back.

People should hold the position for 15-30 seconds, then release the pose and return to the starting position. Those who have a headache, carpal tunnel syndrome, a back injury, or are pregnant should be cautious with, or avoid this pose.

Practicing these poses daily may enhance a sense of well-being.

Additional health benefits of yoga

Many studies have looked at the overall benefits of yoga in reducing stress and boosting physical and mental health. According to an analysis in Health Psychology Review, participation in yoga appears to reduce the release of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress response in the body. Other psychological benefits can include a more positive affect and increased mindfulness.

What additional approaches may help those with fibromyalgia?

Woman has pain in her neck
A very high percentage of people with fibromyalgia are female.

Tai chi is another movement-related practice that may help to relieve fibromyalgia. Like yoga, Tai chi combines the practices of meditation, slow and controlled movements, and deep breathing.

According to the NCCIH, people with fibromyalgia who participated in hourly Tai chi sessions for 12 weeks found their sleep, mood, and overall quality of life improved.

Additional approaches may include:

  • Acupuncture, a Chinese technique that involves applying needles at various specific points on the body to encourage blood and energy flow through the body. However, there is a lack of conclusive evidence that acupuncture will always benefit people with fibromyalgia.
  • Massage therapy involves using the hands to manipulate muscles and soft tissues, and it can help to relieve stress and anxiety in people with fibromyalgia.
  • Sleep and resting well can benefit a person with fibromyalgia. This includes going to sleep at a regular time and avoiding excessive daytime napping that can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
  • Regular exercise can help to decrease pain symptoms associated with fibromyalgia. Moderate exercises, such as swimming, riding a bicycle, engaging in water aerobics, and walking are recommended. Overly strenuous exercise may worsen the pain.

As with most medical conditions, practicing healthy self-care measures, including eating nutritious foods, can help a person live better with fibromyalgia.

Causes, risk factors, and symptoms

The cause of fibromyalgia is not always clear, but it may appear after one of the following events:

  • A physically or emotionally stressful event, such as after an automobile accident or post-traumatic stress
  • An infection or another form of illness
  • A repetitive injury

Researchers believe the repeated nerve stimulation associated with fibromyalgia can affect a person’s brain receptors, causing them to be more sensitive to painful stimulation. Those with fibromyalgia may also have higher levels of neurotransmitters that signal pain.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 80-90 percent of people with fibromyalgia are women. Other factors that increase the risk of developing the disorder include a family history of fibromyalgia, or a history of a rheumatic condition, such as lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, osteoarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis.

The main symptom of fibromyalgia is the pain, but people may also experience cramping in the lower abdomen, depression, fatigue, headaches, sleep problems, tingling in the arms and legs, and painful menstruation. Cognitive function may be affected.

Other pain-related conditions that may occur include endometriosis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Can Essential Oils Help Treat Fibromyalgia?

Essential oils are concentrated aromatic liquids that are distilled from plants. They are believed to provide a number of health benefits and ease the symptoms of several medical conditions, including fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic musculoskeletal disorder and a class of rheumatic disease, which is believed to affect the way the body processes pain signals. It is marked by pain throughout the body, fatigue, mental fog, depression, cramps, and sleep disturbances.

According to the American College of Rheumatology, fibromyalgia affects between 2 and 4 percent of people. Up to 90 percent of people with the condition are women. At present, there is no cure for fibromyalgia. Treatment is based on managing the symptoms.

Essential oils and fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain, fatigue, depression, and other symptoms.

People with fibromyalgia may experience relief from both physical and mental symptoms through the use of essential oils.

In general, research suggests that essential oils offer therapeutic potential in pain relief.

Studies specifically on essential oils for fibromyalgia, other rheumatic conditions, and pain management are limited. However, the following essential oils may help with symptoms of fibromyalgia:

Basil

In one study, basil oil was found to produce painkilling effects on mice with chronic muscle pain. This finding led the researchers to suggest basil oil as a potential method of pain relief for those with fibromyalgia.

Capsicum

This essential oil is extracted from red chilies. It contains capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers, which is well-documented as a pain reliever.

In one study, people with severe fibromyalgia applied topical capsaicin three times per day for 6 weeks. The treatment led to significant improvements in terms of pain relief and overall well-being.

It has also been suggested that concentrated capsaicin patches can reduce neuropathic pain for up to 12 weeks.

Cedarwood

Research from 2015 suggests that inhaling cedarwood essential oil alleviates post-surgery pain in mice by influencing the way the body experiences pain.

Clove

A review of research on clove essential oil suggests that it may be a possible method to relieve pain.

The researchers suggest that clove oil may be so effective because it contains eugenol in high concentrations (88.58 percent). Eugenol is commonly used as a local antiseptic and anesthetic.

Ginger and orange

A blend of both ginger and orange oil was tested on older adults with moderate-to-severe knee pain.

Those treated experienced an improvement in physical function and a reduction in pain when compared with those that received a placebo, or no treatment at all. These benefits were still observable at the 1-week follow-up, but not at the 4-week review.

This study indicates an aromatherapy massage using these essential oils can effectively reduce pain in the short term. Be careful when using citrus oils if going out in the sun, as some research has suggested that they may cause sunburn.

Lavender

Recent research found that an aromatherapy massage using lavender oil effectively reduced pain in people with osteoarthritis of the knee.

Pain levels were reduced immediately after the treatment and remained lowered at 1-week post-treatment. However, the pain relief did not last long-term. At the 4 week follow-up, the pain had returned.

Lavender oil was also found to reduce stress and anxiety, and so may be beneficial for those who experience these common fibromyalgia symptoms. It may also aid sleep.

Multiple oil blend

Research that looked at the effects of a commercially available essential oil blend on people with fibromyalgia found that, following 4 weeks of treatment, improvements were experienced in night pain, strength, and tender point pain thresholds.

The oil blend tested comprised white camphor oil, aloe vera oil, eucalyptus oil, lemon oil, orange oil, peppermint oil, and rosemary oil.

How to use essential oils for fibromyalgia

[lavender essential oil]
The essential oil should not be applied directly to the skin without diluting it first. Alternately, it can be inhaled using a diffuser or oil burner.

Essential oils can be used in the following ways:

  • Topically. Do not apply undiluted essential oils directly to the skin. Essential oils must be mixed with a carrier oil. Mix a few drops of an essential oil with 1 ounce of carrier oil (such as coconut oil, sweet almond oil, or olive oil) before applying to the skin. It can also be used as a massage oil. Mixed oils can also be added to bathwater.
  • Inhaled. The oils can be inhaled directly, or placed in an essential oil diffuser or burner.

To ease fibromyalgia and other pain conditions, it is best to use essential oils on a regular basis. Some of the above studies suggest that the beneficial effects of the oils do not endure beyond a few days, so the regular application may help to keep the pain at bay.

Risks and considerations

Although essential oils are considered a natural remedy, they carry some risks. It is important for people to keep the following in mind:

  • Essential oils should not be ingested. Although some people may recommend taking essential oils by mouth, these products are highly concentrated. They can have serious side effects if taken incorrectly in this manner.
  • It is possible to be allergic to essential oils. People should test their chosen essential oil by mixing it with a carrier oil and putting a small amount, about the size of a dime, on their forearm. If there is no reaction, it should be safe to use. Test each new essential oil in the same manner.
  • Look out for unwanted side effects. While these oils have been shown in studies to have beneficial effects, they may have negative effects too. If any undesirable side effects are experienced, people should stop using them and consult a doctor. Risk varies depending on age, health status, and medications.
  • Check for drug interactions. Essential oils can interact with common prescription drugs. Those on medication should consult a doctor before using essential oils, especially if intending to use them on the skin.
  • Always use a carrier oil. Undiluted oils can cause skin irritation, blisters, or rash. Some oils can also increase sensitivity to light, especially citrus oils. People should dilute essential oils with a carrier oil such as almond oil, coconut oil, or jojoba oil.
  • Choose a reputable brand. There is considerable variation between essential oils in terms of potency and quality.

Other natural remedies and lifestyle changes

There are several other natural treatments for fibromyalgia that vary in effectiveness from person to person. A combination of treatments tends to work best.

Some natural remedies and lifestyle changes include:

[young woman getting a massage]
Massage therapy can help people with fibromyalgia manage their symptoms.
  • Acupuncture. There is some research to suggest that certain acupuncture therapies can ease symptoms for some people with fibromyalgia.
  • Exercise. Regular gentle exercises such as yoga, walking, swimming, and Pilates may help to decrease pain symptoms and fatigue and improve mood and sleep.
  • Massage. According to the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association, regular massage therapy can improve chronic pain and fibromyalgia symptoms. Massage with the essential oils listed above may be particularly beneficial.
  • Sleep. Setting a regular sleep schedule – with the same bedtime and wake time – helps ease fatigue.
  • Stress management. Managing fibromyalgia means reducing both physical and emotional symptoms of stress. Several techniques can help with this, including meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and breathing exercises.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Working with a therapist who practices CBT can help people to develop new coping strategies. It can help people to change thoughts, behaviors, and emotions to better manage pain and other symptoms.

A review of research found that 12 weeks of CBT led to a slight reduction in pain, negative mood, and disability in people of all ages with fibromyalgia. These changes were still experienced 6 months after treatment ended.

When to see a doctor

People should see a doctor if any of the symptoms of fibromyalgia persist, or if symptoms get worse.

Common fibromyalgia symptoms include:

  • depression
  • the difficulty with focus and concentration
  • tiredness
  • headaches
  • muscle spasms
  • nausea
  • widespread pain

Complications associated with fibromyalgia include an impaired ability to function and increased anxiety.

Causes and risk factors

While researchers are not sure of the exact cause of fibromyalgia, the following factors are thought to play a role:

  • Genetics. A family history of fibromyalgia is a risk factor.
  • Inflammation. Inflammation around groups of blood vessels and nerves can cause an over-reactive nervous system.
  • Infection. Certain infections trigger onset.
  • Other disorders. People with other rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or lupus, are at increased risk of fibromyalgia.
  • Psychological distress. Some research suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a potential risk factor for fibromyalgia. Trauma and PTSD ignite inflammatory responses in the body that can lead to pain and disease.
  • Physical trauma. A physical injury, such as a car accident or through surgery, can bring on symptoms.
  • Sex. Women are more likely than men to develop fibromyalgia.

Those who are considering using essential oils for fibromyalgia, particularly if taking multiple medications, may wish to speak with their doctor before beginning treatment.

What is Yoga?

Yoga is a mind and body practice with historical origins in ancient Indian philosophy. Various styles of yoga combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation.

In 5,000 years of yoga history, the term “yoga” has gone through a renaissance in current culture, exchanging the loincloth for a leotard and leggings.

Yoga has become popular as a form of physical exercise based upon asanas (physical poses) to promote improved control of mind and body and to enhance well-being.

Fast facts on yoga

Here are some key points about yoga. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

  • The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root Yuj meaning “to yoke or join together.” Some people take this to mean a union of mind and body.
  • A 2008 market study in Yoga Journal reports that some 16 million people in the US practice yoga and spend $5.7 billion a year on equipment.
  • Hatha yoga is the type of yoga most frequently practiced in Western culture. Ha means “sun” and tha means “moon.”
  • There are many styles of yoga. A person’s fitness level and desired practice outcome determines the type of yoga class to which they are best suited.
  • According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were more than 7,369 yoga-related injuries treated in doctors’ offices, clinics, and emergency rooms in 2010.
  • Common yoga injuries include repetitive strain to and overstretching of the neck, shoulders, spine, legs, and knees.
  • The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) believes the rewards of basic yoga outweigh the potential physical risks.
  • Yoga is defined as having eight branches or limbs: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyhara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi.
  • Practicing yoga has many potential health benefits including relieving low back pain, assisting with stress management and increasing balance and flexibility.
  • There is some evidence to suggest that pregnant women taking yoga classes are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labor.

What is yoga?

In this section, we will discuss the history of yoga, the philosophy behind it, the ‘eight limbs of yoga’ and the seven major chakras.

History of yoga

There is no written record of the inventor of yoga. Yogis (yoga practitioners) practiced yoga long before any written account of it came into existence. Yogis over the millennia passed down the discipline to their students, and many different schools of yoga developed as the practice widened in global reach and popularity.

woman balancing on her bottom
The postures that are now practiced in yoga classes were not originally a dominant component of yoga traditions in India. Fitness was not traditionally a chief aim of the practice.

Sanskrit, the Indo-European language of the Vedas, India’s ancient religious texts, gave birth to both the literature and the technique of yoga.

The “Yoga Sutra,” a 2,000-year-old treatise on yogic philosophy by the Indian sage Patanjali is a type of guidebook that gives guidance on how to gain mastery over the mind and emotions and advice on spiritual growth, providing the framework upon which all yoga practiced today is based. The Yoga Sutra is the earliest written record of yoga and one of the oldest texts in existence.

The Sanskrit word “yoga” has several translations and can be interpreted in many ways. Many translations point toward translations of “to yoke,” “join,” or “concentrate” – essentially a means to unite or a method of discipline. A male who practices this discipline is called a yogi or yogin and a female practitioner is called a yogini.

The postures that are now an integral part of health and fitness in many centers around the world were not originally a dominant component of yoga traditions in India. Fitness was not a chief aim of practice; focus was placed on other practices like pranayama (expansion of the vital energy by means of breath), Dharana (focus, or placement of the mental faculty), and nada (sound).

Yoga began to gain popularity in the West at the end of the 19th century, with an explosion of interest in postural yoga in the 1920s and 1930s, first in India and later in the West.

Philosophy of yoga

Yoga, in ancient times, was often referred to in terms of a tree with roots, trunk, branches, blossoms and fruits. Each branch of yoga has unique characteristics and represents a specific approach to life. The six branches are:

  1. Hatha yoga – physical and mental branch – involves asana and pranayama practice – preparing the body and mind
  2. Raja yoga – meditation and strict adherence to the “eight limbs of yoga”
  3. Karma yoga – path of service to consciously create a future free from negativity and selfishness caused by our actions
  4. Bhakti yoga – path of devotion – a positive way to channel emotions and cultivate acceptance and tolerance
  5. Jnana yoga – wisdom, the path of the scholar and intellect through study
  6. Tantra yoga – the pathway of ritual, ceremony or consummation of a relationship.

The ‘eight limbs of yoga’

Raja yoga is traditionally referred to as ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga because there are eight aspects to the path to which one must attend. The eight limbs of ashtanga yoga are:4

  1. Yama – ethical standards and sense of integrity. The five Yamas are: ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non-covetousness)
  2. Niyama – self-discipline and spiritual observances, meditation practices, contemplative walks. The five niyamas are: saucha (cleanliness), samtosa (contentment), tapas (heat, spiritual austerities), svadhyaya (study of sacred scriptures and of one’s self) and isvara pranidhana (surrender to God)
  3. Asana – integration of mind and body through physical activity
  4. Pranayama- regulation of breath leading to integration of mind and body
  5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses of perception, the external world, and outside stimuli
  6. Dharana – concentration, one-pointedness of mind
  7. Dhyana – meditation or contemplation – an uninterrupted flow of concentration
  8. Samadhi – the quiet state of blissful awareness.

Chakras

The word chakra means “spinning wheel.” According to the yogic view, chakras are a convergence of energy, thoughts, feelings, and the physical body. They determine how we experience reality from our emotional reactions, our desires or aversions, our level of confidence or fear, and even the manifestation of physical symptoms.

When energy becomes blocked in a chakra, it is said to trigger physical, mental, or emotional imbalances that manifest in symptoms such as anxiety, lethargy, or poor digestion. The theory is to use asanas to free energy and stimulate an imbalanced chakra.

There are seven major chakras, each with their own associations:

man sitting with chakras
Chakras are said to determine how we experience reality from our emotional reactions, our desires or aversions, our level of confidence or fear, and even the manifestation of physical symptoms.
  1. Sahasrara: the “thousand-petaled” or “crown chakra” represents the state of pure consciousness. This chakra is located at the crown of the head and signified by the color white or violet. Sahasrara involves matters of inner wisdom and death of the body.
  2. Ajna: the “command” or “third-eye chakra” represents a meeting point between two important energetic streams in the body. Ajna corresponds to the colors violet, indigo or deep blue, though it is traditionally described as white. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the pituitary gland, growth, and development.
  3. Vishuddha: the “especially pure” or “throat chakra” is symbolized by the color red or blue. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the home of speech and hearing, and the endocrine glands that control metabolism.
  4. Anahata: the “unstruck” or “heart chakra” is related to the colors green or pink. Key issues involving Anahata involve complex emotions, compassion, tenderness, unconditional love, equilibrium, rejection, and well-being.
  5. Manipura: the “jewel city” or “navel chakra” is symbolized by the color yellow. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the digestive system, along with personal power, fear, anxiety, opinion-formation, and introversion.
  6. Svadhishthana: “one’s own base” or “pelvic chakra” is said by practitioners to represent the home of the reproductive organs, the genitourinary system, and the adrenals.
  7. Muladhara: the “root support” or “root chakra” is located at the base of the spine in the coccygeal region. It is said to hold our instinctual urges around food, sleep, sex, and survival. It is also the realm of our avoidance and fears.

Types of yoga

Modern forms of yoga have evolved into exercise focusing on strength, flexibility, and breathing to boost physical and mental well-being. There are many styles of yoga, and no style is more authentic or superior to another; the key is to choose a class appropriate for your fitness level.

Types and styles of yoga may include:

man in an ashtanga yoga pose
Classes should be chosen depending on your fitness level and how much yoga experience you have.
  • Ashtanga yoga: based on ancient yoga teachings but popularized in the 1970s, each of the six established sequences of postures rapidly links every movement to breathe.
  • Bikram yoga: held in artificially heated rooms at temperatures of nearly 105 degrees and 40% humidity, Bikram is a series of 26 poses and sequence of two breathing exercises.
  • Hatha yoga: a generic term for any type of yoga that teaches physical postures. When a class is labeled as “hatha,” it is usually a gentle introduction to the basic yoga postures.
  • Iyengar yoga: focused on finding the proper alignment in each pose and using props such as blocks, blankets, straps, chairs and bolsters to do so.
  • Jivamukti yoga: meaning, “liberation while living,” Jivamukti yoga emerged in 1984, incorporating spiritual teachings and vinyasa style practice. Each class has a theme, which is explored through yoga scripture, chanting, meditation, asana, pranayama, and music, and can be physically intense.
  • Kripalu yoga: teaches practitioners to get to know, accept and learn from the body. In a Kripalu class, each student learns to find their own level of practice on a given day by looking inward. The classes usually begin with breathing exercises and gentle stretches, followed by a series of individual poses and final relaxation.
  • Kundalini yoga: the Sanskrit word kundalini means coiled, like a snake. Kundalini yoga is a system of meditation directed toward the release of kundalini energy. A class typically begins with chanting and ends with singing, and in between features asana, pranayama, and meditation designed to create a specific outcome.
  • Power yoga: an active and athletic style of yoga adapted from the traditional ashtanga system in the late 1980s.
  • Sivananda: a system based on a five-point philosophy that holds that proper breathing, relaxation, diet, exercise, and positive thinking work together to form a healthy yogic lifestyle. Typically uses the same 12 basic asanas, bookended by sun salutations and savasana poses.
  • Viniyoga: intended to be adaptable to any person, regardless of physical ability, Vini yoga teachers are required to be highly trained and tend to be experts on anatomy and yoga therapy.
  • Yin: a quiet, meditative yoga practice, also called Taoist yoga. Yin yoga enables the release of tension in key joints: ankles, knees, hips, the whole back, neck, and shoulders. Yin poses are passive, meaning the muscles should be relaxed while gravity does the work.
  • Prenatal yoga: yoga postures carefully adapted for people who are pregnant. Prenatal yoga is tailored to help people in all stages of pregnancy and can support people in getting back into shape after pregnancy.
  • Restorative yoga: a relaxing method of yoga, spending a class in four or five simple poses using props like blankets and bolsters to sink into deep relaxation without exerting any effort in holding the pose.

Health benefits of yoga

Scientific trials of varying quality have been published on the health benefits and medical uses of yoga. Studies suggest that yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity and enhance strength, flexibility, and balance. Yoga practice has also shown benefit in specific medical conditions, and we will look at this evidence and current scientific research below.

Scientists and medical doctors pursuing yoga-related research focus on its potential benefits as a technique for relieving stress and coping with chronic conditions or disabilities, as well as investigating its potential to help prevent, heal, or alleviate specific conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, diabetes, and symptoms of menopause.

1) Anxiety and depression

Mind-body medical interventions are commonly used to cope with depression, and yoga is one of the most commonly used mind-body interventions. Systematic studies and meta-analyses have been carried out in order to assess the effectiveness of yoga for depression.

man and woman in a yoga pose
Yoga may be a promising way to reduce music performance anxiety and perhaps even prevent it in the future.

In one 9-week course of yoga, veterans were seen to experience significant reductions in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Mental health functioning scores were also improved, but pain intensity and physical health functionality did not show improvements.

Elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are commonly seen in depression, and yoga has demonstrated an ability to relieve hypercortisolemia and reduce other parameters of stress. A study into the effects of yoga on cortisol and depression found that yoga might act at the level of the hypothalamus to create an ‘anti-stress’ effect by reducing cortisol levels, thereby helping to bring about relief in depression.

A systematic review and meta-analysis investigating yoga for depression examined 12 randomized controlled trials, including 619 participants. The researchers concluded that despite the methodological drawbacks of the included studies, yoga could be considered an ancillary treatment option for patients with depressive disorders and individuals with elevated levels of depression.

Professional musicians often experience high levels of stress, music performance anxiety (MPA), and performance-related musculoskeletal disorders (PRMDs). Given the fact that most professional musicians begin their musical training before the age of 12, it is important to identify interventions that will address these issues from an early age.

Results from a study suggest that yoga may be a promising way for adolescents to reduce MPA and perhaps even prevent it in the future. These findings also suggest a novel treatment modality that potentially might alleviate MPA and prevent the early disruption and termination of musical careers.

2) Arthritis

A systematic review of 9 studies regarding yoga as a complementary approach for osteoarthritis found positive changes in psychological or physiological outcomes related to arthritis.

The studies varied in length and not all of the studies used randomized controlled design; many had small sample sizes, different outcomes, and used non-standardized yoga interventions. Despite these limitations, the reviewers concluded that yoga appears to be a promising modality for arthritis.

3) Asthma

In a study comparing people with asthma When comparing asthmatics in a yoga group and in a non-yoga control group with those in a control group, those in the yoga group had a significant improvement in a number of parameters suggesting improvements in symptoms of asthmas.

These parameters included an improvement in levels of the proportion of hemoglobin and the antioxidant superoxide, and a significant decrease was found in total leukocyte count (TLC) and differential leukocytes count in comparison to control group.

The yoga group had more significant improvements in biochemical variables than the control group. Results show that yoga can be practiced as adjuvant therapy with standard inhalation therapy for a better outcome of asthma.

However, a systematic review assessing the effectiveness of yoga as a treatment for asthma concluded that there is insufficient quality evidence to support the belief that yoga alleviates asthma and that further, more rigorous trials are warranted.

4) Balance and falls

Falls amongst older people are a global health concern. Whilst falling is not a typical feature of aging, older people are more likely to fall and falls are a leading cause of death and disability.

older people practicing yoga
Yoga has been shown to help improve balance and prevent falls in older adults.

Yoga and tai chi have shown potential to improve balance and prevent falls in older adults. They also have the potential to improve pain and quality of life.

In a 14-week program comparing yoga and tai-chi to usual care, yoga was associated with a slight decrease in the incidence of falls and a reduction in average pain scores in older adults. Although these changes were not statistically significant, the results showed positive changes to balance, pain, and quality of life and a high level of interest through attendance amongst older participants.

The results support offering tai chi and yoga to older people who are frail and dependent with physical and cognitive limitations.

Another study observing body balance and postural control in young adults determined that a 5-month hatha yoga training program could improve postural control significantly in healthy adults.

5) Bipolar disorder

In a study of the benefits and risk of yoga in individuals with bipolar disorder, the participants reported positive emotional effects, particularly reduced anxiety, positive cognitive effects (e.g., acceptance, focus, or “a break from my thoughts”), or positive physical effects (e.g., weight loss, increased energy). Some respondents considered yoga to be significantly life changing. The most common negative effect of yoga was physical injury or pain.

Five respondents gave examples of specific instances where yoga practice increased their agitation or manic symptoms, while another five respondents gave examples of times that yoga increased depression or lethargy.

6) Breast cancer cognitive problems

Survivors of cancer often report cognitive problems, and people undergoing cancer treatment often experience decreases in physical activity. Although physical activity benefits cognitive function in non-cancer populations, evidence linking physical activity to cognitive function in survivors of cancer is limited.

A study comparing a group with and without yoga intervention found that those who practiced yoga more frequently reported significantly fewer cognitive problems at a 3-month follow-up compared to those who practiced less frequently.

These findings suggest that yoga can effectively reduce cognitive problems in survivors of breast cancer and prompt further research on mind-body and physical activity interventions for improving cancer-related cognitive problems.

7) Breast cancer disability

Secondary arm lymphedema continues to affect at least 20% of women after treatment for breast cancer, along with pain and restricted range of motion requiring lifelong professional treatment and self-management.

A pilot trial was designed to investigate the effect of yoga on women with stage one breast cancer-related lymphedema. The 8-week yoga intervention reduced tissue induration of the affected upper arm and improved quality of life scores. Arm volume of lymphedema and extra-cellular fluid did not increase during the yoga intervention, but these benefits dissipated after the women stopped doing yoga, at which point arm volume of lymphedema increased.

Additional research of a longer duration and with higher levels of lymphedema and larger numbers is warranted before definitive conclusions can be made.

8) Cancer-related fatigue

Fatigue is one of the most frequently reported, distressing side effects reported by survivors of cancer and often has significant long-term consequences. Research indicates that yoga can produce invigorating effects on physical and mental energy, and thereby may improve levels of fatigue.

woman bending forward into yoga floor pose
Studies have suggested that yoga interventions may be beneficial for reducing cancer-related fatigue in women with breast cancer.

An 8-week yoga exercise program assessed whether yoga can decrease anxiety, depression, and fatigue in patients with breast cancer. Fatigue was effectively reduced in the study but the intervention was not associated with a reduction in depression or anxiety.

The authors of the study conclude that oncology nurses should strengthen their clinical health education and apply yoga to reduce the fatigue experienced by patients with breast cancer who undergo adjuvant chemotherapy.

Another 12-week study found that restorative iyengar yoga was associated with reduced inflammation-related gene expression in breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue. These findings suggest that a targeted yoga program may have beneficial effects on inflammatory activity in this patient population, with potential relevance for behavioral and physical health.

A systematic review of yoga interventions on fatigue in patients with cancer and survivors of cancer suggests that yoga interventions may be beneficial for reducing cancer-related fatigue in women with breast cancer; however, conclusions should be interpreted with caution as studies demonstrated varying levels of bias and inconsistent methodology.

9) Cardiovascular disease

A sedentary lifestyle and stress are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Since yoga involves exercise and is thought to help in stress reduction, it may be an effective strategy for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Across 11 identified trials with 800 participants, researchers found that the limited evidence in this field comes from small, short-term, low-quality studies. There is some evidence that yoga has favorable effects on diastolic blood pressure, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides, while the effects on low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol were uncertain. These results should be considered as exploratory and interpreted with caution.

A further meta-analysis revealed evidence for clinically important effects of yoga on most biological cardiovascular disease risk factors. Despite methodological drawbacks of the included studies, yoga can be considered as an ancillary intervention for the general population and patients with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

10) Chronic neck pain

Assessment of the effects of a 9-week yoga intervention on chronic nonspecific neck pain found that neck-related disabilities were improved for at least 12 months after intervention completion. Sustained yoga practice was deemed the most important predictor of long-term effectiveness.

11) Chronic heart failure

A meta-analysis of the effects of yoga in patients with chronic heart failure suggested that yoga compared with control had a positive impact on peak Vo2 (oxygen uptake, an indicator of exercise capacity) and health-related quality of life.

Yoga could be considered for inclusion in cardiac rehabilitation programs. Larger randomized controlled trials are required to further investigate the effects of yoga in patients with chronic heart failure.

A randomized controlled trial indicated that the addition of yoga therapy to standard medical therapy for heart failure patients has a markedly better effect on cardiac function and reduced myocardial stress measured using N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide in patients with stable heart failure.

12) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Currently, several studies have assessed the effect of yoga training on the management of the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Five randomized controlled trials involving 233 patients suggested yoga training has a positive effect on improving lung function and exercise capacity and could be used as an adjunct pulmonary rehabilitation program in COPD patients.

However, further studies are needed to substantiate these preliminary findings and to investigate the long-term effects of yoga training.

13) Flexibility

Research looking at the effects of selected asanas in iyengar yoga over 6 weeks showed a significant increase in flexibility. Specifically, the results of this research indicate that 6 weeks of single session yoga training may be effective in increasing flexibility in the hamstring and erector spinae (the muscles extending the vertebral column).

14) Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

A case report assessed the effects of yoga on gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The researchers indicate the regular and proper use of yoga along with over-the-counter or prescribed proton pump inhibitors (PPI) can control the severe symptoms of GERD and can avoid or delay the need for invasive procedures.

The case report showed that with the regular practice of kapalbhati and agnisar kriya along with PPI, patients with a hiatal hernia had improvement in severe symptoms of GERD which were initially refractory (unresponsive) to PPI alone.

15) Hypertension

Effective stress management is a key part of managing blood pressure, and a number of systematic reviews have assessed the available evidence for yoga as a therapeutic tool for managing prehypertension and hypertension (elevated blood pressure). Researchers have found that yoga may be an effective adjunct treatment for hypertension, although further evidence is needed.

These reviews found that although yoga is associated with decreases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, its effects are minimal compared with exercise. The studies reviewed varied greatly in duration, methodology, and in the type of yoga practiced, and the researchers called for future research that focuses on high-quality clinical trials along with studies on the mechanisms of action of different yoga practices.

The antihypertensive effects of yoga appear to be greater in people with cardiovascular disease, although people with normal blood pressure may also benefit.

16) Low back pain

Several studies suggest yoga may be effective for chronic low back pain and have shown that yoga intervention in populations with chronic low back pain may be more effective than usual care for reducing both pain and medication use.

young woman in yoga pose
Studies have indicated that 6 weeks of uninterrupted medical yoga therapy is a cost-effective early intervention for non-specific low back pain.

A randomized controlled study investigating medical yoga, exercise therapy, and self-care advice concluded that 6 weeks of uninterrupted medical yoga therapy is a cost-effective early intervention for non-specific low back pain when patients adhere to treatment recommendations.

In another study, researchers investigated the effects of yoga on pain, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and serotonin in premenopausal women with chronic low back pain. BDNF and serotonin are considered mediators of nociceptive pain (i.e. pain felt due to tissue irritation or injury).

Participants practiced yoga three times a week for 12 weeks and at the end of the study had a decrease in pain as measured on a Visual Analog Scale (VAS). The VAS score increased in the control group who did not practice yoga. Back flexibility also improved in the yoga group, while serum BDNF increased and serum serotonin and depression scores remained the same in the yoga group.

The control group had a decrease in BDNF and serotonin levels as well as an increase in depression scores. The researchers propose that brain-derived neurotrophic factor may be one of the key factors mediating beneficial effects of yoga on chronic low back pain.

A similar trial monitored changes in pain intensity and health-related quality of life in nonspecific low back pain in those participating in iyengar yoga or general exercise. The results suggest iyengar yoga provides a better improvement in pain reduction and quality of life compared to general exercise.

Virtual reality-based yoga programs such as Wii Fit Yoga have been shown to have positive effects on physical improvements in middle-aged female patients with low back pain. This program can be employed as a therapeutic medium for prevention and cure of low back pain.

A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials regarding the use of yoga for chronic low back pain offers further confirmation that yoga may be an efficacious adjunctive treatment for chronic low back pain. However, the researchers were careful to note that a number of methodological concerns need to be addressed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding yoga’s specific treatment effects or advantages over traditional exercise programs.

More Health Benefits

17) Menopause

In a community-based interventional study, the quality of life in menopausal women was greatly improved after an 18-week course of yoga practice. The researchers concluded that yoga is an effective complementary health approach for those suffering menopausal symptoms.

18) Mental health

Physical activity has a positive effect on mental health and well-being. The aim of one study was to compare the effects of hatha yoga and resistance exercises on mental health and well-being in sedentary adults.

Hatha yoga improved fatigue, self-esteem, and quality of life, whilst resistance exercise training improved body image. Hatha yoga and resistance exercise decreased depression symptoms at a similar level.

Hatha yoga and resistance exercise may affect different aspects of mental health and well-being.

19) Metabolic syndrome

An explorative study investigated metabolic responses to mental stress and yoga practices in yoga practitioners, non-yoga practitioners, and individuals with metabolic syndrome (a cluster of factors that increase a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke).

The results of the study support the findings of previous randomized trials that suggest regular yoga practice may mitigate against the effects of metabolic syndrome.

In a more recent study, 44% of the 84 patients with metabolic syndrome (MetS) who undertook a year-long yoga practice no longer met the diagnostic threshold for MetS. In the group practicing hatha yoga three times a week, 67% had a decreased number of MetS components after the year of yoga. However, some 15% of the patients had an increased number of MetS components.

The only factor that reached statistical significance was a decrease in the prevalence of central obesity; at the start of the study, 90.5% of those in the yoga group had central obesity, dropping to just 64.3% at the end of the intervention. The yoga group also demonstrated a trend towards a decrease in systolic blood pressure and a decrease in resting heart rate.

20) Migraine

A comprehensive study examining the effect of yoga on migraine showed significant clinical improvement in frequency and intensity of migraines in those taking part in yoga therapy. The researchers concluded that yoga therapy could be effectively incorporated as an adjuvant therapy in migraine patients.

Another study investigated the preventive effects of a three-month yoga intervention on endothelial function in patients with a migraine. The study found that yoga exercises, as a complementary treatment beside pharmacological treatments, could be an effective way to improve vascular functions in migraineurs.

21) Mother and baby

Mother and baby yoga is becoming more and more popular as postpartum mothers discover the benefits of being able to “work out,” bond with their baby and relax, all in one session.

mother and baby yoga
Postnatal yoga or mother and baby yoga can help rebuild the weakened pelvic floor, strengthen the abdominal muscles and even alleviate back and neck pain while bonding with baby.

According to The Practicing Midwife, postnatal yoga can enhance feelings of calmness and a sense of well-being, helping mothers to improve and stabilize their emotional health and to bond with their baby. Additionally, yoga may help to strengthen the weakened pelvic floor and abdominal muscles and may even alleviate back and neck pain. For babies, yoga can aid digestion and alleviate colic, help to strengthen growing limbs, improve sleep patterns, and enhance their ability to interact with their mother and other people.

22) Oxidative stress

Hypertension, especially in the elderly, is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular mortality and morbidity. Oxidative stress has been implicated as one of the underlying causes of hypertension.

A study found yoga to be an effective means to reduce oxidative stress and to improve the antioxidant defense in elderly hypertensive individuals.

In another, small study, researchers found that regular yoga practice could decrease oxidative stress and improve antioxidant levels, in addition to significantly increasing certain aspects of immune function and stress.

Young, healthy university students volunteered for the study and were assigned either to a control group (13) who did no yoga, or a yoga group (12) who practiced yoga with an instructor for 90 minutes once a week for 12 weeks, with daily home-based practice for the duration.

At the end of the 12-week study, the yoga group had significant decreases in markers for oxidative stress such as blood levels of nitric oxide, F2-isoprostane, and lipid peroxide. Antioxidant levels and activity, including total glutathione (GSH), activities of GSH-peroxidase, and GSH-s-transferase were remarkably increased after yoga practice compared with the control group.

The researchers also noted that the yoga group had a significant increase in immune-related cytokines, such as interleukin-12 and interferon-gamma, suggesting immune benefits of yoga. The students practicing yoga also had significant reductions in levels of adrenalin and increased levels of serotonin compared with the control group, suggesting enhanced stress management.

23) Posttraumatic stress

More than a third of the approximately 10 million women with histories of interpersonal violence in the US develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A study exploring the efficacy of yoga to increase affect tolerance and to decrease PTSD symptomatology found yoga significantly reduced symptoms of PTSD and improved the functioning of traumatized individuals.

In a small pilot study, researchers assessed the potential benefits of a yoga program as an adjunctive therapy for improving PTSD symptoms in veterans with military-related PTSD. Twelve veterans took part in a 6-week yoga intervention held twice a week, and the researchers observed a significant improvement in PTSD hyperarousal symptoms and overall sleep quality as well as daytime dysfunction related to sleep.

The intervention was not associated with significant improvements in total PTSD, anger, or quality of life, but the researcher concluded that yoga may be an effective adjunctive therapy for some symptoms of PTSD in veterans.

24) Pregnancy

Yoga is used for a variety of immunological, neuromuscular, psychological, and pain conditions. Recent studies indicate that it may be effective in improving pregnancy, labor, and birth outcomes.

The breathing and meditation techniques can help enhance health and relaxation for those who are pregnant and support mental focus to aid childbirth. Some postures are chosen specifically to help encourage an optimal fetal position.

In a survey ascertaining the opinions, practices, and knowledge about exercise, including yoga, during pregnancy:

woman taking part in pregnancy yoga
Yoga may help improve stress levels, quality of life, and labor parameters such as comfort, pain, and duration in pregnant women.
  • 86% of women responded that exercise during pregnancy is beneficial
  • 83% felt it was beneficial to start prior to pregnancy
  • 62% considered walking to be the most beneficial form of exercise
  • 64% of respondents were currently exercising during pregnancy
  • 51% exercised 2-3 times a week
  • 65% considered yoga to be beneficial
  • 40% had attempted yoga before pregnancy.

Another study tested the efficacy of yoga as an intervention for reducing maternal anxiety during pregnancy.

A single session of yoga reduced both subjective and physiological measures of state anxiety and the reduction in anxiety persisted at the final session of the intervention. Antenatal yoga seems to be useful for reducing women’s anxieties toward childbirth and preventing increases in depressive symptomatology.

Yoga group participants show fewer postpartum but not antepartum depressive symptoms than control group participants. Findings indicate that prenatal hatha yoga may improve current mood and may be effective in reducing postpartum depressive symptoms.

A systematic review of yoga in pregnancy showed that studies indicate that yoga may produce improvements in stress levels, quality of life, aspects of interpersonal relations, autonomic nervous system functioning, and labor parameters such as comfort, pain, and duration. However, they conclude that more randomized controlled trials are needed to provide more information regarding the utility of yoga interventions for pregnancy.

25) Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome is a common disorder that can cause serious sleep disturbance and have a significant adverse effect on quality of life.

In one study, women aged 32-66 years with restless legs syndrome completed 16 yoga classes over an 8-week period. At the end of the study, participants demonstrated striking reductions in symptoms of restless legs syndrome and decreased symptom severity. Symptoms were reduced to minimal/mild in all but one woman and no participant reported severe symptoms by week 8. Participants also showed significant improvements in sleep, perceived stress, and mood.

26) Sleep

The aging process is associated with physiological changes that affect sleep. In older adults, undiagnosed and untreated insomnia may cause impaired daily function and reduced quality of life. Insomnia is also a risk factor for accidents and falls that are the main cause of accidental deaths in older adults.

Compared with controls, the yoga group reported significant subjective improvements in a range of measures, including:

  • Overall sleep quality
  • Sleep efficiency
  • Sleep latency and duration
  • Self-assessed sleep quality
  • Fatigue
  • General well-being
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Tension
  • Anger
  • Vitality
  • Function in physical, emotional, and social roles.

Another study found that an 8-week yoga intervention in 20 people with chronic insomnia led to statistically significant improvements in sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep onset latency (how long it takes to fall asleep), and wake time after sleep onset.

27) Stress management

Several studies have looked at yoga as a model for stress management. In a study observing the effects of 10 weeks of classroom-based yoga on cortisol and behavior in second and third-grade students, cortisol decreased significantly and students’ behavior improved. The results suggest that school-based yoga may be advantageous for stress management and behavior.

children practicing yoga
Studies suggest that school-based yoga may assist with stress management and the behavior of children.

One study found that yoga may help children and young people cope with stress and, as a result, could contribute positively to balance in life, well-being, and mental health.

Another study evaluated the influence of hatha yoga practice on levels of distress in women about to begin a course of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Of the 143 female participants, 45 attended hatha yoga and 75 did not. Data suggest that psychological support and practice of hatha yoga before IVF is associated with distress reduction.

28) Urinary incontinence

Yoga has been shown to reduce inflammation and may help improve symptoms of urge urinary incontinence. More research is necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of yoga to reduce urge urinary incontinence symptom burden and improve the quality of life.

29) Weight management

A comparative controlled trial compared the effects of yoga and walking for weight management in overweight and obese adults.

Both groups showed a significant decrease in body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, hip circumference, lean mass, body water and total cholesterol. The yoga group increased serum leptin and decreased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. The walking group decreased serum adiponectin and triglycerides.

Both yoga and walking improved anthropometric variables and serum lipid profile in overweight and obese persons.

The prevalence of yoga research in western health care is increasing. The marked increase in volume indicates the need for more systematic analysis of the literature in terms of quality and results.

Risks and side effects of yoga

Yoga is low-impact and safe for healthy people when practiced appropriately under the guidance of a well-trained instructor.

Injury due to yoga is an infrequent barrier to continued practice, and severe injury due to yoga is rare.

Anyone who is pregnant or who has an ongoing medical condition, such as high blood pressure, glaucoma or sciatica, should talk to their healthcare practitioner prior to practicing yoga as they may need to modify or avoid some yoga poses.

Beginners should avoid extreme practices such as headstand, lotus position and forceful breathing.

Individuals with medical preconditions should work with their physician and yoga teacher to appropriately adapt postures; patients with glaucoma or a history or high risk of retinal detachment should avoid inversions, and patients with compromised bone should avoid forceful yoga practices.

Do not use yoga to replace conventional medical care or to postpone seeing a health care provider about pain or any other medical condition. If you have a medical condition, talk to your health care provider before starting yoga.