Yoga is one of the most underrated activities for improvement mental and physical health and wellness. Many of those who are unfamiliar with yoga often think of it as a glorified stretching program, or something that is synonymous with mediation. While some of these domains certainly do present themselves in yoga at times, there is definitely more to the picture. We have previously spoken about the benefits of yoga, but today we would like to specifically discuss how yoga may be able to help with recovering from an injury.
You may have heard lots before about how stretching before and after activity may be able to reduce instances of injury. There is lots of debate out there about what type of stretching is better or worse for injury prevention, how much stretching to do, when to do it, etc. This makes it extremely difficult for those looking for a practical solution, but here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to stretching and injuries, particularly as it relates to yoga.
Different tissues in the body will react to stretch differently. For example, muscles are easily stretched (relatively speaking) due to their length, contractile properties, and blood supply. Tendons, which are the structures that connect muscle to bone, are typically way more stiff, but they can still respond to stretching. On the other hand, ligaments are passive structures that cannot be actively contracted. They connect bone to bone, and their purpose is to provide stability around joints. As such, ligaments are not supposed to be capable of stretching too much. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how this may affect your course of action.
Injury to a Muscle or Tendon
Please keep in mind that the following information is quite generalized and is only meant to provide you with a starting point for an appropriate curse of action. Discussions with your doctor and/or physiotherapist will be crucial in order to understanding your particular injury and how to best rehabilitate it.
Muscle and tendon strains can be quite painful, and given the dynamic nature of muscles, injury to these structures can cause significant limitations to mobility. Muscle and tendon strains are typically very painful, especially with movement that requires contraction or lengthening of that particular muscle or tendon. Therefore, it’s easy to see why resting the injured area is an enticing solution.
Resting the injured muscle is definitely required in the initial stages of recovery. In the first couple days to a week, the injured area is in the inflammatory phase. This is usually characterized by pain, redness, swelling, and warmth of the injured area. It’s necessary in order for the body to help rid the area of biological debris and lay down new material for healing. So when you first incur the injury, rest is typically advised, as well as other solutions like applying ice for the pain and swelling, as well as elevating the area if possible.
After the inflammation phase, we now enter the proliferative phase, which is characterized by the development of new tissue. This is a sensitive stage whereby you don’t want to cause more damage, but you can also assist your recovery by gradually returning to movement. For example, by placing just a little bit of stress on the area, whether it be extremely light stretching or easy movements, can help the new tissue structure itself in a way that will help it meet future demands and regain normal function.
As time goes on, you can generally begin placing more and more load on the area, gradually regaining your full range of motion. Strengthening and stretching are both important, with a focus on active stretching, that is, simple things that take the joint through its range of motion. For example, if you strained your quadriceps, focusing on knee flexion and extension may be a way to help that specific area heal and regain normal function. If it’s a more chronic injury, or something that has healed but is still nagging, sometimes you can get little tools to help. For example, patellar tendon straps are simple and effective items that can really help people with patellar tendonitis. Wearing one of these while doing yoga can help you get the most out of your experience, assuming that’s the sort of injury that has been affecting you.
So how can yoga help with these injuries? If the program is light enough, yoga can help restore muscle strength to the area and also help with maintaining/regaining normal range of motion. Additionally, the fact that all positions are performed under your own body weight offers a relatively safe approach compared to something that involves external weights, such as dumbbells. However, please be cautious when doing yoga while injured. The degree of stretch may be too intense for your particular injury, so practice caution and never over-do it.
Ligaments can take quite a while to heal, particularly if the tear was substantial. In the case of a full rupture, the ligament will have to be surgically repaired, and in this case, you will likely be given a fairly detailed rehabilitation program to follow. Ligaments are tough because inactivity can quickly lead to degradation and weakness of the tissue, yet substantial rest is required in order to clear that inflammatory phase and ensure you don’t re-injure the tissue.
So how can yoga help? In this case, it may be beneficial to wait a little longer for a ligament injury before returning to yoga. Remember, ligaments need to be tight and strong in order to reinforce joints. For example, the MCL of the knee reinforces the inside of the joint by spanning from the thigh to the shin on the inside of the leg over the knee joint. If this ligament was loose or damaged, it would be fairly useless.
So when going back to yoga, the focus should be on strengthening the surrounding muscles and practicing range of motion of the joint. Stressing the ligament lightly within its normal limits (less so if its still early in recovery) can help the newly healed tissue structure itself in line with the direction of typical stresses being applied to it. Just remember that too much stretching may further damage the ligament or cause a setback, so start very light and progress through your range of motion very gradually. Simply put, listen to your body and take things slow.
Yoga can be a useful tool for injury prevention and recovery, but it depends highly on the specific injury and how far along in the healing process you are. From a general standpoint, yoga should be used to strengthen muscle groups and perform movements that help bring a joint through its range of motion, but be careful of the stretching aspect, especially if your injury is to a ligament. Ask your doctor or physiotherapist first about yoga, as they may have some clever ideas for you to modify the program, allowing you to get the most out of the activity. Good luck!