Yoga for Caregivers: The Natural Way to Relieve Stress & Pain

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A couple of years ago, as I jay-jogged across a busy avenue from my parking spot to the building where I worked, I felt a sharp pain shoot up my leg and into my hip. I'd had some nagging pain issues there for a time, but since I have three types of arthritis and am hardly young, this wasn't surprising. Still, it was frustrating.

My mother had undergone double hip replacements and I figured, grudgingly, that my time was nearer than I thought. The hip pain kept getting worse. I found myself wincing as I walked to get the mail. I even developed enough of a limp that my colleagues noticed a change in my normally rapid gait.

I finally made an appointment with a chiropractor I'd seen from time to time. I trusted him, as he knew and respected arthritis issues, and was careful not to do any harm. He manipulated gently and did some acupressure and tapped me in the tight spots with his little rubber hammer. He commented on my tight lower back, not unusual for someone who sits at a keyboard all day.

The treatments helped some, but never lasted. Sometimes, I'd experience numbness the next day. One day, an idea flashed across my little pea brain. "Gee, Honey, you haven't done your yoga routine for, um, 3 years?"

During the mid-70s I received, through a book club, a "free gift" about natural beauty and such. The book wasn't of huge interest to me as I am lazy about such things and still had hippy hair, but I did notice a nice yoga workout. I'd suffered from migraines since my teens, and thought this stretching routine might help the migraines. I've always been unusually limber, so the "workout" seemed effortless. But I did it because it did feel kind of good.

Yoga Helps Get Rid of Aches and Pains

Okay, fast forward a decade. I'd dropped the yoga after a couple of years. Sheer laziness and apathy on my part. The focus sort of floated away. However, after giving birth to two children and raising them into post-toddlerhood, I was having some pain in various regions of my body. I knew the family arthritis was finding its way into an old neck injury as well as other spots. Again, I started my little 15-minute workout. Yes, 15 minutes! Even I had time for that if I chose to use my time well. Quite quickly, though not as quickly as in my younger years, I was back at it. Doing a heals-over-head "plow" pose was nothing. I felt great.

But, um, life once again interfered. This is my pattern. I decide one night I don't have time for that routine. Pretty soon a week goes by, then a month, then a year. Eventually, I'd completely – and brainlessly – given up this simple route to feeling better.

Spurts of yoga are dotted in that same manner throughout decades of my life. Finally, the hip pain reminded me that I was probably in need of some good stretching. I took out the old book to remind myself of the moves and began once more. This time, of course, was just a bit harder than all of my other times. But I stuck to it, and the hip pain disappeared. X-rays had shown some arthritis wear and tear, but nothing serious. The chiropractor had helped. But this was free. I could do it at home. And, more importantly, it worked beautifully!

Alas, I did drop it a few more times. Sometimes I need pain to remind me to be good to my body. Lately, I have started that simple routine again. I make myself put down the book I'm relaxing with in the evening and just sit on the floor. Then, I give myself permission to just do half the routine. Soon, since I'm at it, I finish it and then am proud of myself, as well as more relaxed.

Yoga and Your Well-Being: Health and Happiness

This time, I pushed myself, but didn't go to the point of pain. In a few weeks (rather than days as when I was younger), I'd gotten back on track. The trick for me is "no excuses!" If I think of one I can think of a dozen. And why? This short routine makes me feel great, eases pain and keeps me moving quickly and efficiently.

I'm also at an age where balance starts to go. That means falls could happen. Yoga is great for balance. My brain knows it all. I need to take that knowledge and turn it into action. I need to stop goofing off while the decades pass by like telephones poles from a train window. My yoga routine is easy if I just do it.

Many people are better off starting out with classes. I, no doubt, could use a few so I know my form is correct when I do the poses. But, my personality is such that I likely won't go. So I continue on with my old routine.

As with all exercise, checking with a doctor is good. Some people shouldn't be rolling heels-over-head for any reason. But there are yoga poses that nearly anyone can do. Breathing right is something I'm spotty about and an instructor could help with that. Some people meditate while doing yoga. I prefer my own twist on that. My yoga is for physical wellbeing. And if I'm not totally brainless, I will keep going this time. If I don't, I know it will be harder to get started the next time I feel pain.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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7 Comments

The wisdom of this article will likely be lost on many Americans who have the type of chronic pain problems that this writer has addressed. Many would rather believe that popping anti-inflammatories, taking cortizone shots, and having jaw, wrist, neck, and back surgeries are the answer. Their doctor has likely been trained to handle TMJ/TMD, repetitive stress injuries, and bulging disks by treating the symptom instead of the cause.

I was one of the lucky ones. I had had severe TMJ (jaw) pain over a period of about 7 years. I was taking an anti-inflammatory drug daily. It was not relieving my pain. I didn't know where to turn. I started seeing specialists. I eventually drove 10 hours to one of this country's top superclinics. There, an oral surgeon told me that I would need open-joint surgery to my jaw joint in 6 months to 2 years, depending on my pain tolerance. Since that surgery was going to leave me with a 2-inch scar in front of my ear, I was reluctant. Plus, my parents knew someone in our neighborhood who had had that same surgery, ironically at that same superclinic, and was in more pain after her surgery than before. I took my parents' advice. I got a second opinion. I didn't know where to go. I just pulled the name of another oral surgeon out of a local phone book. Someone must have been looking out for me that day. This oral surgeon was different. He looked at my MRI and tomogram from the superclinic and said that although they had indicated my jaw disc was likely perforated, he personally felt there was probably a 50% chance that my problem was just muscular. He told me in confidence that many of the open joint surgeries done for TMJ/TMD--the same ones that he himself was doing--fail. He suggested that I stop taking the anti-inflammatory drug that I was taking and see a craniopath he knew who had been having great success in the treatment of TMJ/TMD using a purely palpatory neuromuscular approach.

Although I had a big question mark over my head of whether this would be worth my time, I took his advice. I had to drive two hours each way to see the craniopath. I saw him weekly, then eventually bi-weekly, over 6 months in 1992. His treatment was painless, took about 20 minutes, and cost $40 a session. The first week, I was amazed. I'd drive over their in pain and drive home pain free. It was as if the last 7 years of pain had never happened. But at first, the pain relief lasted only a day or two. But, as he predicted, after weeks of treatment, it started to hold. After six months, I stopped going. I never had the surgery recommended by the superclinic. And I never had pain in my jaw again. Around the same time, I also taught myself to stop tensing up the muscles in my jaw and to stop grinding my teeth at night. It took a few months, but I remember that I used to say over and over again, before I went to bed, stuff like "I will keep my jaw relaxed tonight, I will not grind my teeth tonight, etc.".

While I was seeing this craniopath, he explained to me that what he was doing was helping to restore good muscle tone that I had lost. He said that sometimes people, when they are stressed, develop a habit of tensing up one or more parts of his body, 24x7, to the point that circulation is reduced and oxygen to tissues is cut off (ouch!). For example, a person might do this in their neck and shoulders, eventually causing pain in the wrists and fingers. Or to the muscles in the lower back, causing lower back pain.. After years of this abuse, the muscle gets “locked up” (his term). The muscle has lost tone, the joints don't work the same, and cartilage has worn down. (He said that eventually this can get to the point where it’s down to bone against bone, and that at that point, there’s little that even a good neuromuscular specialist can do other than relieve pain temporarily.) In my case, he was able to restore good oxygenation, circulation, and muscle tone, and I became asymptomatic again.

I have told this story many times to people I meet who have told me about their chronic pain problems. I think that most don't believe that the solution to chronic joint pain can sometimes be this simple. They’d rather take the anti-inflammatories, have the cortizone shots, and get the jaw, neck, wrist, and back surgeries instead of getting a second opinion from someone who believes in treating the cause rather than the symptom.

Last winter my dad was in inpatient rehab for about a week. While our family was there, I got to talking with one of the occupational therapists. She said I wouldn’t believe her if she told me how many of her patients are there to get help for a chronic pain problem made worse by a surgery that was supposed to treat it. She also told me that what people need to ask a surgeon, before having an elective surgery for chronic pain, is what his success rate is; NOT the percentage of surgeries he’s done that were done correctly procedural wise (that’s the number he may try to give), but instead the percentage of patients he has operated on who, after his surgery, have had long-term relief of their painful symptoms.

Best wishes,
I understand this article completely. Although I am 57, I took ballet classes for 14 years growing up. I still know when something doesn't feel right in my body. Sitting in the floor and stretching relieves most of my pains. I haven't tried yoga but did try Tai Chi. It brought relief and strength to muscles I hadn't used in a long time. I am like the author, why don't Imake time for such simple things that make me feel better? The main thing is keep those muscles stretched, loose, or whatever and the joints don't hurt as much. They are like rubber bands - too much tension and you have problems!
Great Article, but where are the exercises? PLEASE post a few for those of us who are like you in many ways, but need a bit of help.