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how dangerous is this whole ‘yoga’ thing, anyway??

yoga wreckage It’s enough to disquiet even advanced practioner’s savasana — the idea that yoga can “wreck your body.” The yoga world has been thrown into a tizzy by a Jan. 5 article by New York Times lead science writer William J. Broad, suggesting that the “‘the vast majority of people’ should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.”

One element of the story was particularly interesting to me — the idea of tracking emergency-room admissions related to yoga. It turns out the data is all online! And I’ve been able to analyze it to come up with an idea of just how dangerous yoga really is.

First, some background. Since 1971, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission has made arrangements with a statistically representative sample of about 100 hospitals nationwide to send in emergency-room admissions data to keep track of consumer products injuries — a system called the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.

yoga wreckage 2 In 2010, for example, 69 people visited hospital emergency rooms in the NEISS system after injuries involving “extension or straight ladders” — which the CPSC estimates means there were 4,024 such injuries nationwide. (The NEISS uses a weighted sample technique to create a geographically balanced national estimate, so depending on the institution, each actual ER visit in the sample creates between 5.3 and 76.6 “statistical visits” in the national estimate. More detail here.).

In 2000, the program was expanded to include all injuries, not just those related to consumer products — making it a valuable tool for public health officials and professionals.

Yoga isn’t tracked separately, of course, but the data includes a brief narrative from the emergency-room staff of how each injury occurred. I was able to download all exercise-related data from 2002 to 2010 and, using Microsoft Excel, exclude all the cases — the vast majority — that didn’t mention yoga. [1]

This is what I found. First, each year there are a few thousand yoga-related emergency room visits nationally — and it doesn’t seem like there’s been a big increase since 2002. There was an average of 1,794 yoga-related ER visits a year from 2002-’10, my analysis of the NEISS data found. (These include any cases where the word “yoga” is mentioned, including some where there’s other possible causes of injury — e.g., someone who was lifting weights and practicing yoga, and later felt back pain). There were a total of 436 yoga-related ER visits to the 90 NEISS-affiliated hospitals over those eight years, making for a national estimate of 16,150 yoga-related ER visits from 2002-’10.

Second, most yoga-related ER visits are for fairly minor injuries. Of those 16,150 estimated ER visits, 95 percent were treated and released.

About half of all cases involved sprains or muscle strains. (Here’s the diagnosis of the actual cases, because the national estimate starts getting unreliable the thinner you slice it).

There were just a handful of serious cases:

  • One 62-year-old woman suffered a heart attack Oct. 10, 2009, after doing yoga.
  • A 5-year-old and a 13-year-old suffered concussions, a 7-year-old suffered a lacerated spleen and 11 other people — mostly kids — were injured falling off, tripping over or even fighting over “yoga balls” (I’d never heard of such a product, but but some Swiss balls are apparently marketed as such.)
  • There were 23 broken bones, including five toe fractures, five wrist fractures (from falls), and a 51-year-old Asian woman suffered a cervical spine fracture — a broken neck — on June 13, 2008. (The narrative just says she “injured back, performing yoga,” with no further details).
  • One 58-year-old woman reported March 8, 2006, that while in yoga class she “felt a ripping sensation in brain [and] passed out.” She was diagnosed with an intracranial hemorrhage, or bleeding in the skull, and admitted.

Other cases seemed exceedingly minor, like the 71-year-old woman who visited an ER after she “was doing yoga and was in a position which made her dizzy which she was concerned about.” She was diagnosed with a case of dizziness — I wasn’t sure if this was a dry attempt at humor or not. There were also five people who went to the ER for what were diagnosed as headaches.

Then there were some weird cases:

  • A 66-year-old man went to an ER April 16, 2010, complaining of pain “from doing ‘drunk yoga.’” He was diagnosed with a right hamstring pain.
  • A 58-year-old woman, on Dec. 3, 2008, “was trying a yoga move while intoxicated and injured back.” Lumbar strain.
  • A 33-year-old woman Dec. 10, 2003, was “teaching yoga barefoot and stepped on something — foreign body in foot.” Ow.
  • On Aug. 8, 2005, a 28-year-old woman accidentally kicked in the face during yoga class was diagnosed with a broken nose. Again, ow.
  • On June 26, 2007, a 45-year-old woman was “riding bike to yoga class when yoga mat caught in wheel of bike causing fall head first to cement.” Eeep. Suffered “abras lip/tooth contusion.”

And this case was sad: A 62-year-old woman, on Jan. 18, 2010, with “history of backpain physician told her to take a yoga class — after yoga — pain actually got worse.” She was diagnosed with a strained lower back.

For the record, 78 of the 436 cases — 18 percent — occurred at home and so were probably unsupervised. The lower trunk was the body part most frequently injured, followed by the upper trunk, the knee and the neck.

Overall, though, yoga was very safe compared to other forms of exercise.

There were 30 times as many emergency-room visits in 2010 related to running than yoga! And 12 times as many where the word “gym” was mentioned. (The raw numbers also included eight exercise-related fatalities, all from heart attacks, and all where the victim had been working out or jogging). Of course, this doesn’t take into account the relative popularity of these practices, but it’s still telling I think.

And for people who want to use these numbers to justify their own laziness — keep in mind that you can be injured just about anywhere, including IN BED! There were an estimated 218,619 bed or bedframe-related emergency-room visits from people aged 17 to 70 in 2010 alone, according to NEISS. Most were from falling out of bed, but people were also hurting rolling around in bed and, in a handful of cases, stung by scorpions. It’s a tough world out there.

THE TL;DR VERSION: Yoga is comparatively very safe, but you can certainly be hurt doing it. Be careful letting kids horse around on “yoga balls,” of practicing “drunk yoga” and of letting your mat get caught in the spokes of your bike if you ride it to class. But get out there and do something!

1. I checked my methodology with Tom Schroeder, director of the CPSC’s division of hazard and injury data systems. He told me in an email,

What you did was correct. The only caution I would give is to consider more words than just ‘yoga’. Misspellings in the NEISS are common. Your annual estimates are valid although we do give caution that estimates under 1,200 are somewhat unstable (but still valid) and may fluctuate greatly from year to year.

I considered these misspellings for yoga (joga, yuga, etc). but didn’t find anything.
Google Docs spreadsheet I created listing data can be found here.

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