Fact Check

Yoga Cured an Elderly Woman's Curved and Painful Back?

A spine specialist said it's unlikely one month of yoga healed an octogenarian's severely painful and curved back.

Published Aug 17, 2016

"Yoga Grandma"
"Yoga Grandma"
An 86-year-old woman's severely painful and curved back was cured by her practicing yoga for a month.

An August 2016 New York Post article reporting that an elderly New York woman got complete relief from a curved and painful back by doing one month of yoga has gone viral. But a spine surgeon told us it's unlikely yoga alone miraculously cured her.

The 8 August 2016 account stated that 86-year-old Anna Pesce, the "yoga grandma," now stands tall despite suffering from a herniated disc, scoliosis, and osteoporosis, and the feel-good premise has become popular on Facebook, prompting other news outlets to cover the story. The Post article said Pesce had lived with a hunched-over posture for decades, and in 2014 she experienced debilitating pain trying to climb a set of stairs that left her wheelchair-bound — until she discovered yoga:

[Yoga instructor Rachel] Jesien visited Pesce in her home once a week, teaching her restorative poses and stretches such as child’s pose and chair savasana, in which Pesce would rest her lower legs on a chair while lying on the floor with her knees slightly bent and a strap around her thighs. After one month of sessions, Pesce was able to walk again.

But Dr. Nick Shamie, a spine surgeon and professor of orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery at the University of California at Los Angeles, told us that while practicing yoga has likely been good for Pesce's overall health, he can't credit it with healing her back:

The reason people get excited about this story is someone who was in severe pain, with one month of treatment, has had a complete return to normalcy with something that is safe and enjoyable. But we need to be objective of our statements.

Acute pain from a back injury, depending on the source and severity, often goes away with no more help than the body's natural ability to heal over time.  Dr. Shamie said he himself practices yoga but stressed that while he generally considers it beneficial, people with back pain need to see a medical doctor before jumping into an exercise regimen:

One needs to objectively look at her symptoms and try and correlate the symptom with a diagnosis — when did her pain start versus what medical conditions are acute. Then you have to see if yoga is an appropriate treatment for that diagnosis. If someone has a fracture of the spine, the last thing you want to do is go and do a down dog.

It's not uncommon for patients and their loved ones to mistake whatever course of action they've taken to relieve their symptoms as a miracle cure when it coincides with relief (even though the relationship isn't necessarily a causal one):

Yoga, regular exercise, appropriate diet, regular and ample hours of sleep all have a positive effect on your sense of well being. But to say someone was suffering from three conditions, not know which was symptomatic and saying after yoga all three of them got better, I think it’s a stretch. Notwithstanding that, I believe that yoga is definitely a great form of exercise and can certainly, if done correctly, with proper guidance and training, help with pain that many people are suffering from regarding the spine and may even increase the longevity of your spine. Like any other exercise regimen, if done inappropriately and with bad habits can actually be harmful.

Dr. Jeffrey Wang, co-director of the Spine Center at the University of Southern California and professor of orthopaedic surgery and neurosurgery, said yoga does help some of his patients — the regimen can help straighten out a hunched spine if the patient doesn't have a rigid deformity, which can only be corrected through surgery:

There are people that lean forward because their muscles are fatigued and tired. The bone isn’t in that position, it’s the muscles. If you strengthen the muscles you can get back your posture.

The danger is that there are a lot of people in her age group that have fixed deformities that are not flexible. If so you can do all the exercises in the world and it’s not going to give back your posture.

He believes Pesce to have had a flexible deformity, which are caused by muscle weakness and not fixed skeletal issues. If that is the case, it is possible yoga could have helped her strengthen core muscles and straighten out her back:

You have someone who has a flexible deformity that had weak muscles and got into a good exercise program and I think that’s fantastic.

Pesce's yoga instructor, Rachel Jesien, pointed out that she and other teachers she works with have developed a special yoga program to help people with scoliosis and other back problems. She said Pesce's dedication and hard work were key to her recovery.

Without contacting her personal doctor or seeing her medical records, it's hard to verify exactly what helped her overcome her back problem. Yoga seems to have played a positive role in her life, regardless of whether it was the cure, but doctors caution that it isn't for everyone and urge potential yogis to seek out professional medical care and good instructors to ensure safety.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who has been working in the news industry since 2006.