Table of Contents
Introduction - Summary, Relative Literature
Common Neck Injuries in Yoga - How to Avoid Injury
Common Shoulder Injuries in Yoga - Methods to Protection
Common Wrist Injuries in Yoga - Tips and Tricks to Protect your Wrists
Common Yoga Injuries of the Lower Back - Great Ways to Protect the Lumbar Spine
Common Hamstring Injuries in Yoga - One Simple Method to Preventing Injury
Common Knee Injuries in Yoga - 3 Ways to Protect your Knees
Conclusion - Summary
The physical practice of yoga is low-impact and therefore relatively low-risk when it comes to developing a yoga injury. With conscientious and ability-appropriate practice, the risk can remain small. However, like any other form of exercise, injury is possible and in fact, too frequent. So, it's important to be aware of common yoga injuries and prevention, as students and teachers.
Related Literature of Yoga-Associated Injuries
Yoga injuries could present a predicament of whether or not an individual should pick up a routine practice. A descriptive epidemiological study was performed in the United States from 2001 to 2004. During this time, data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) was used to determine the rate of new yoga-associated injuries. Out of the 29,590 yoga-related injuries seen (rates were stratified according to age), 46.6% had been of the trunk region of the body and 45% accounted for sprains and strains (Swain, 2016).
Another study aimed to determine how common yoga-associated injuries are by performing 9 observational studies. With a total of 9,129 yogis and 9903 non-yoga practitioners, it was discovered that most yoga-related injuries are mild and short term, however still quite present (Cramer, 2018).
Throughout the literature, it is evident that yoga can result in acute or chronic adverse effects if not properly performed. The lesson here: simply being more aware of the different common yoga injuries can provide freedom from fear of injury during yoga.
The asanas, or physical postures, most commonly associated with musculoskeletal injury (strains, sprains, and fractures) fit into one of two categories: (1) relatively higher risk of falling out of the pose, or (2) involving extreme range of motion. The most damage-inducing postures are headstand, handstand, shoulder stand, lotus pose, back bends, and forward folds.
Below we'll look at various joints of the body, how they are susceptible to injury, and how to avoid damage to our musculoskeletal systems, thus preventing a yoga injury.
1. Common Neck Injuries in Yoga
Yoga neck injuries are some of the most detrimental to the human body. The cervical spine (c-spine) consists of seven vertebrae that link the base of the skull to the rest of the spine. The c-spine is incredibly important because it houses the upper portion of the spinal cord, which connects to the brain. It also sends out nerve roots that provide movement and sensation to the arms and serves as an anchor for countless muscles that stabilize the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Since the cervical vertebrate supports only the weight of the head, the bony structures are fairly small and delicate. The structure of the cervical vertebrate gives way to be able to rotate, flex and extend in all different directions so that we can move our heads. The lumbar vertebrae, in contrast, are chunky, so they can handle the huge loads we place on our low backs from above and below.
(Insert image of the different sizes of vertebrae, otherwise I think it could be distracting to even mention the lumbar vertebrae).
Understanding the importance of the cervical spine helps us to appreciate its delicacy and prevent yoga neck injury. This allows us to create a sense of support in postures where it may be at risk for compression, most notably sirasana (headstand). Repeated weight on the c-spine has the potential to cause micro-fractures of the vertebrae. Over time this damage can cause pain, change in shape, and decreased range of motion of the neck.
Possible Outcomes Continued...
Compression can also lead to disc herniation and nerve pinching, which has various downstream effects such as loss of sensation or decreased muscle strength of the arm and hand. Another notorious pose is sarvangasana, or shoulderstand. The excessive neck flexion in this pose can over-stretch and damage the ligaments in the neck, as well as compress discs. That all sounds terrible. So how do we avoid it?!
3 Steps to Avoiding Neck Injuries in Yoga:
- 1. Only practice headstand if you are very confident and have zero neck pain while doing so. Have a spotter or a wall nearby to avoid falling out of the pose.
- 2. Even if your headstand feels great, minimize the weight on the cervical spine by pushing down through the forearms in supported headstand. Avoid unsupported variations of the pose.
- 3. Only practice supported versions of shoulder stand. Rest the shoulders on two or three folded blankets, while keeping the head on the mat. You’ll still reap the benefits of the full pose, while lessening the degree of neck flexion. (Would be a good idea to recommend some effective stretches for flexion and extension for shoulders and arms).
2. Common Shoulder Injuries in Yoga
While practicing yoga, people should be aware of injury of the shoulders. The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and their ligaments that keep the arm bone anchored at the shoulder. Damage to the rotator cuff is usually from overuse or impingement (pinching). Repeated weight-bearing movements or frequent small stresses can eventually lead to weakening or tearing of the tendon’s attachment site. Chaturanga dandasana is a pose that requires a high level of shoulder strength to perform sustainably.
Impingement of any of the structures in the shoulder may occur when the joint is pushed beyond its healthy range of motion, or the humerus (upper arm bone) is not stabilized into the shoulder socket. Impingement can result in tendinitis or tearing. Rotator cuff injuries most often occur at the supraspinatus tendon, but any of the muscles or tendons may be involved.
4 Ways to Help Keep Shoulders Safe:
- 1. Maintain shoulder stability by hugging the humerus into the socket (I would suggest explaining how to do this). Watch for shoulders creeping up into ears or the head of the humerus protruding from the socket. (Maybe give a visual, such as a small weight pressing down on your shoulders or sticking your neck out like a turtle).
- 2. If you’re feeling worn out from your 100th chaturanga of the day, take it easy! Put your knees down or skip the vinyasa altogether.
- 3. Only perform postures requiring deep shoulder openness, especially weight-bearing ones, after a long warm-up. (Give some examples of postures).
- 4. Binds are particularly stressful for the rotator cuff and come with risk of impingement and strain. Never execute binds that aren’t relatively easy for you to get into, or ones that cause any shoulder pain. Use a strap to find ease through the shoulder in binds.
3. Common Wrist Injuries in Yoga
Yes, arm balances are cool. We all want to be able to float up effortlessly into bakasana or fly funkily into eka pada koundinyasana. But there’s a reason we walk on our feet and not on our hands: our little wrists are not engineered to support our entire body weight! The anatomy of the hands is such that when we put pressure on them, the bones don’t stack nicely to give strong, structural support like the feet and ankles do when we stand. This makes the soft tissues of the wrists (muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia) vulnerable to damage.
Arm balances aren’t the only culprit, either. Downward-facing dog, planks, and cobra can also hurt the wrists. Now this doesn’t mean these poses (and eventually more advanced arm balances) are completely off the table. It just means we need to know how to prepare for and practice them safely. Also, in our daily lives we spend a lot of times with our wristsin extension: think of your wrist position while typing and driving.
6 Tips and Tricks to Protect Your Wrists:
- Any time there is weight in your hands, spread your fingers wide and push evenly through all sides of the hands. This distributes the weight throughout the soft tissues, lightening the load for any given spot in the forearm, wrist, and hand.
- Before progressing to postures that require the majority or all the weight in the hands, spend time (like, months or years!) building forearm and wrist strength. You can incorporate these into your practice if that sounds fun: do cobra on tented fingers, add water-flicking movements to standing postures like crescent lunge and tree, do a couple of “finger push-ups” in tabletop.
- Many common poses involve excessive extension of the wrists, which can cause strain and pain. Lessen the degree of wrist extension in plank, chaturanga, and vasistasana (side plank) by placing hands just ahead of shoulders, instead of directly underneath.
- If you feel any strain or pain, take a break! Give your wrists a break by using fists or forearms. Take dolphin pose instead of down dog, use fists instead of hands in plank, or better yet, back off completely and let yourself rest.
- Balance your wrists with gentle movements of flexion, abduction, and adduction to counteract the compression of constant extension.
- Roll the edge of your mat up a couple times and place the ball of your hand gently across the line, allowing your fingers to drape across the other side. This will lessen the weight of the body on the wrists.
4. Common Yoga Injuries of the Lower Back
Yoga Injuries of the lower back remain some of the most common reasons for visiting a doctor, and a major complaint by yogis, too. Countless postures we perform put stress on the lumbar spine, so even if you’re one of the lucky few who does not experience low back pain, it’s important to be aware of how to keep the low back safe.
In yoga, low back stress usually stems from back bending. Classic backbends like dhanurasana (bow pose) and urdvha dhanurasana (upward-facing bow pose or wheel) are obvious culprits. However, other back-neutral poses can sneakily turn into lumbar spine extensors if not performed properly. These are often the source of lumbar spine injury that causes pain. Examples of these are crescent pose, low lunge, and even tadasana.
We tend to “deepen” lunging poses by anteriorly tilting the pelvis (pushing the seat back and low ribs forward), which compresses the low back and can damage lumbar discs. In standing poses like tadasana, the same thing happens - we get lazy in these seemingly simple postures and sink our weight into our low backs.
3 Low-Back-Friendly Suggestions:
- In any backbend, continually remind yourself to posteriorly tilt your pelvis to pull it back into neutral. This means drawing the tail bone down towards the floor and drawing the abdomen and low ribs in towards the spine. Some instructors cue this as shortening the distance between the hip bones and low ribs. No matter how you word it, the point is to lengthen through the low back to prevent over-extension.
- Co-contract the abs (rectus abdominis) to stabilize the core and prevent excessive spinal extension.
- Work on shoulder, hip flexor, and thoracic spine mobility if you’re hoping to deepen your backbends. Flexibility in these areas helps distribute the backbend across multiple joints, so there’s no hinging in the low back.
5. Common Hamstring Injuries in Yoga
In our busy, fast-paced lives, we all crave the grounding and calming sensation that forward folds provide. Since they tend to feel so good, it’s easy to over-do it, putting our hamstrings at risk for injury. The hamstring tendons attach to the pelvic bone, and it’s not uncommon for micro-tears to appear at this attachment point. This type of injury would likely manifest as deep pain in the bum or upper thigh region, or an uncomfortable pulling sensation down the back of the thigh, especially in forward folds. Micro-tears can accumulate and lead to macro-tears, which are much more debilitating and can require long-term physiotherapy, rehabilitation, or even surgery.
Prevent Over-Stretching and Damage in One Simple Step:
- Bend your knees enough to bring your abdomen to thighs in all forward folds - standing or seated. Even a tiny bend at the knee helps soften the hamstring muscles, lessening tension at their attachment point.
6. Common Knee Injuries in Yoga
Knees move in relatively few directions, compared to other joints. They flex (bend), extend (straighten), and when flexed between 30° and 90°, they rotate medially and laterally too. A multitude of ligaments support and stabilize the knees. You’ve heard of the notorious ones like the anterior cruciate (ACL), posterior cruciate (PCL), medial collateral (MCL), lateral collateral (LCL). There are so many other ligaments in the neighborhood, though: transverse, arcuate popliteal, meniscofemoral, anterolateral, fibulocollateral, etc. All of them keep the knees moving safely. Understanding the structure of your knees will help to prevent certain knee injuries during your practice.
An example of a knee-straining pose is lotus. Full lotus places small but firm torsional strain on the knee, so there is a chance of damage to the ligaments and meniscuses. For this reason, lotus should never be forced, and should only be practiced by yogis with deep hip and groin flexibility, which enable full expression of the pose while keeping the knees in their neutral position.
3 Methods to Preventing Knee Injuries in Yoga:
- If you experience any knee pain, back out of the pose immediately.
- Build strength. Developing strength in the legs keeps you stable and makes you better prepared to fall out of postures without twisting the knee. Squats, lunges, walking, and cycling are great functional exercises that help prevent knee injury.
- Build flexibility. There really is no such thing as knee flexibility. However, openness of the hips, groin, hamstrings, calves, and ankle improve the range of motion of the whole lower body. Flexibility allows us to move into deeper postures without stressing the knees. Malasana and skandasana are great postures for both hip and ankle flexibility.
When it comes down to it, the health benefits of yoga far outweigh the potential risks of harm. The small chance of a yoga-related injury should not discourage healthy people from practicing! Being aware of your own body’s limitations and paying attention to signs of damage should be enough to keep you safe. If you are someone who is still concerned on how to protect and prevent yoga injuries, please review relative literature posted below to increase your knowledge.
All photos by Adam Gavin
Cramer H, Ward L, Saper R, et al. The Safety of Yoga: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2015; 182(4): 281-293. DOI 10.1093/aje/kwv071. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26116216/
Cramer H, Ostermann T, Dobos G. Injuries and other adverse events associated with yoga practice: A systematic review of epidemiological studies. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 2018; 21:147-154. DOI 10.1016/j.jsams.201708.026. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28958637/Cramer, H., Quinker, D., Schumann, D., Wardle, J., Dobos, G., & Lauche, R. (2019, July 29). Adverse effects of yoga: A National Cross-sectional survey. BMC complementary and alternative medicine. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6664709/
Ferreira M, Galvez-Jimenez N. Sirsasana (Headstand) Pose Causing Compressive Myelopathy with Myelomalacia. Images in Neurology. 2013; 70(2): 268. DOI 10.1001/jamaneurol.2013.589.
Russel K, Gushue S, Richmond S, McFaull S. Epidemiology of yoga-related injuries in Canada from 1991 to 2010: a case series study. International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion. 2016; 23(3): 284-290. DOI 10.1080/17457300.2015.1032981. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25952761/
Sfeir J, Drake M, Sonawane V, Sinaki M. Vertebral compression fractures associated with yoga: a case series. European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. 2018: 54(6): 947-951. DOI 10.23736/S1973-9087.18.05034-7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29687967/
Swain, T. A., & McGwin, G. (2016, November 16). Yoga-related injuries in the United States from 2001 to 2014. Orthopaedic journal of sports medicine. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5117171/