Yoga Put to the Test for Headaches, Diabetes, Osteoarthritis, and the Elderly

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What happens when real yoga is compared to sham yoga?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Yoga is an ancient mind-body discipline which originated in India thousands of years ago, and that’s where most yoga studies are done to this day. This has raised concerns that national pride might incline Indian researchers to quietly shelve any negative results, and just publish studies showing yoga works. This fear is not without precedent. For example, research conducted in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan was found to be uniformly favorable to acupuncture; all trials, without exception, were positive. Now, one possible explanation for this finding is that acupuncture is just more effective in countries where it is traditionally practiced. But it is a little suspicious. So, are Indian yoga trials more likely to be positive than those from other countries? They looked at hundreds of randomized controlled trials of yoga, both done in India and done in other countries, and trials on yoga conducted in India had about 25 times the odds of reaching positive conclusions as those conducted elsewhere. Again, yes; yoga might be more effective in India than elsewhere, but it is a little suspicious.

So, for example, if you’re interested in whether yoga is helpful for treating headaches, and you read that yoga appears to be helpful for those suffering from tension-type headaches. But then you find out that nearly all such studies were conducted in India. What do you do with that information? Also, notably, none of the control groups had any sort of exercise component, though this may be less critical for tension headaches, since neither aerobic exercise training…nor strength training appears to help. So, if we’re to believe the Indian study conclusions, yoga may indeed help with tension headaches, but even they found no effect for migraines. What may help migraines, though, is other types of exercise––specifically aerobic exercise, decreasing migraine pain intensity, frequency, and duration, at least in the short term.

What about the benefits of yoga practice compared to physical exercise in the management of type 2 diabetes? A significant reduction in both short-term and longer-term blood sugar control was noted in the yoga groups compared to other exercise control groups. However, the findings may need to be interpreted with caution, since nearly half of the studies didn’t define and adhere to a well-planned exercise regimen in the control group. Furthermore, an exercise intervention comparable in intensity to yoga was followed only in three out of the eight studies included. And, for what it’s worth, the majority of the studies, six out of eight, were from India.

When yoga was carefully compared to sham yoga, which consisted of chair exercises, standing exercises, and slow walking to match the yoga session, the relative yoga benefits evaporated. Both yoga and sham yoga had identical effects on blood sugar status. Hence, further well-controlled randomized trials are required prior to drawing conclusions about the benefits of yoga in comparison to physical exercise in patients with diabetes.

Similar tentative conclusions were reached for yoga for osteoarthritis. Put all the studies together, and yoga may indeed be effective for improving pain, function, and stiffness in individuals with osteoarthritis of the knee––compared not only to doing nothing, but compared to other kinds of exercise. They had some issues with the quality of some of the studies, and so, only a weak recommendation for the use of yoga for osteoarthritis. But hey, if you like yoga, or if yoga is the only kind of exercise you’re willing to do, then it’s probably better than nothing.

Finally, in this video, let’s look at the effects of yoga compared to active and inactive controls—meaning like compared to other exercise regimens, or just like doing nothing—on physical function and health-related quality of life in adults aged 60 and older. Compared to doing nothing, they found clear evidence that yoga improves physical function and psychological wellbeing in older adults. So, definitely better than nothing. What about compared to other exercises? Yoga pulled ahead for lower limb strength and lower body flexibility, but for improving balance, mobility, and walking speed, yoga appeared comparable. Psychologically, yoga appeared to beat out other exercises for alleviating depression in older adults, but not anxiety or perceived mental health in general.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Yoga is an ancient mind-body discipline which originated in India thousands of years ago, and that’s where most yoga studies are done to this day. This has raised concerns that national pride might incline Indian researchers to quietly shelve any negative results, and just publish studies showing yoga works. This fear is not without precedent. For example, research conducted in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan was found to be uniformly favorable to acupuncture; all trials, without exception, were positive. Now, one possible explanation for this finding is that acupuncture is just more effective in countries where it is traditionally practiced. But it is a little suspicious. So, are Indian yoga trials more likely to be positive than those from other countries? They looked at hundreds of randomized controlled trials of yoga, both done in India and done in other countries, and trials on yoga conducted in India had about 25 times the odds of reaching positive conclusions as those conducted elsewhere. Again, yes; yoga might be more effective in India than elsewhere, but it is a little suspicious.

So, for example, if you’re interested in whether yoga is helpful for treating headaches, and you read that yoga appears to be helpful for those suffering from tension-type headaches. But then you find out that nearly all such studies were conducted in India. What do you do with that information? Also, notably, none of the control groups had any sort of exercise component, though this may be less critical for tension headaches, since neither aerobic exercise training…nor strength training appears to help. So, if we’re to believe the Indian study conclusions, yoga may indeed help with tension headaches, but even they found no effect for migraines. What may help migraines, though, is other types of exercise––specifically aerobic exercise, decreasing migraine pain intensity, frequency, and duration, at least in the short term.

What about the benefits of yoga practice compared to physical exercise in the management of type 2 diabetes? A significant reduction in both short-term and longer-term blood sugar control was noted in the yoga groups compared to other exercise control groups. However, the findings may need to be interpreted with caution, since nearly half of the studies didn’t define and adhere to a well-planned exercise regimen in the control group. Furthermore, an exercise intervention comparable in intensity to yoga was followed only in three out of the eight studies included. And, for what it’s worth, the majority of the studies, six out of eight, were from India.

When yoga was carefully compared to sham yoga, which consisted of chair exercises, standing exercises, and slow walking to match the yoga session, the relative yoga benefits evaporated. Both yoga and sham yoga had identical effects on blood sugar status. Hence, further well-controlled randomized trials are required prior to drawing conclusions about the benefits of yoga in comparison to physical exercise in patients with diabetes.

Similar tentative conclusions were reached for yoga for osteoarthritis. Put all the studies together, and yoga may indeed be effective for improving pain, function, and stiffness in individuals with osteoarthritis of the knee––compared not only to doing nothing, but compared to other kinds of exercise. They had some issues with the quality of some of the studies, and so, only a weak recommendation for the use of yoga for osteoarthritis. But hey, if you like yoga, or if yoga is the only kind of exercise you’re willing to do, then it’s probably better than nothing.

Finally, in this video, let’s look at the effects of yoga compared to active and inactive controls—meaning like compared to other exercise regimens, or just like doing nothing—on physical function and health-related quality of life in adults aged 60 and older. Compared to doing nothing, they found clear evidence that yoga improves physical function and psychological wellbeing in older adults. So, definitely better than nothing. What about compared to other exercises? Yoga pulled ahead for lower limb strength and lower body flexibility, but for improving balance, mobility, and walking speed, yoga appeared comparable. Psychologically, yoga appeared to beat out other exercises for alleviating depression in older adults, but not anxiety or perceived mental health in general.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Doctor's Note

This is the third video in this six-part series on yoga. The first two were How to Prove Whether Yoga Has Special Health Benefits and Yoga Put to the Test for MS, Back Pain, Neck Pain, Insomnia, and Breast Cancer.

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