A new study published last week in the Journal of Pain Research found that practicing yoga can reduce chronic pain symptoms in women with fibromyalgia. Earlier studies found yoga to be beneficial for many of the symptoms of FM, but this study is the first to specifically study the effects of yoga on cortisol levels in FM patients.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced and released by the adrenal gland and functions as a component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to stress. Previous research has found that women with fibromyalgia have lower-than-average cortisol levels, which contribute to pain, fatigue and stress sensitivity.
“Ideally, our cortisol levels peak about 30-40 minutes after we get up in the morning and decline throughout the day until we’re ready to go to sleep,” says the study’s lead author, Kathryn Curtis, a PhD student in York University’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health in Toronto, Canada. “The secretion of the hormone, cortisol, is dysregulated in women with fibromyalgia,” she says.
Study Design and Results
Twenty-two women with fibromyalgia were recruited from the community to participate in a 75-minute yoga class twice weekly for eight weeks. Questionnaires concerning pain (intensity, unpleasantness, quality, sum of local areas of pain, catastrophizing, acceptance, disability), anxiety, depression, and mindfulness were administered pre-, mid- and post-intervention. Salivary cortisol samples were collected three times a day for each of two days, pre- and post-intervention.
Participants’ saliva revealed elevated levels of total cortisol following the yoga program. The participants reported significant reductions in pain and associated symptoms, as well as psychological benefits. They felt less helpless, were more accepting of their condition, and were less likely to “catastrophize” over current or future symptoms.
“Hatha yoga promotes physical relaxation by decreasing activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which lowers heart rate and increases breath volume. We believe this in turn has a positive effect on the HPA axis,” says Curtis.
“We saw their levels of mindfulness increase – they were better able to detach from their psychological experience of pain,” Curtis says. Mindfulness is a form of active mental awareness rooted in Buddhist traditions; it is achieved by paying total attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental awareness of inner and outer experiences.
“Yoga promotes this concept – that we are not our bodies, our experiences, or our pain. This is extremely useful in the management of pain,” she says. “Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain.”
Although I've never tried yoga myself, the FM patients I've talked with who have say that it has helped them quite a bit. I once invited a yoga instructor I know to do a presentation at one of our support group meetings. After she taught us a couple of basic techniques, I could understand at least one of the reasons yoga can be helpful for FM. If nothing else, yoga teaches us to breathe properly.
• Fact 1: Oxygen is essential for our bodies, and particularly our brains, to function properly.
• Fact 2: People with FM are usually shallow breathers and we often hold our breath without even realizing it.
So any exercise or therapy that helps us train our bodies to take fuller, deeper breaths is a good thing. Of course, I know yoga has many other benefits in addition to breathing, but that's the feature that has most intrigued me.
I'd like to hear from you. If you have fibromyalgia and have tried yoga, please click “Comments” below and share your experience. Did you notice any symptom improvements? Were there any negatives? Would you recommend yoga to other FM patients?
Curtis, K., et al (2011). An eight-week yoga intervention is associated with improvements in pain, psychological functioning and mindfulness, and changes in cortisol levels in women with fibromyalgia. Journal of Pain Research, 4, 189-201.
Yoga boosts stress-busting hormone, reduces pain: York U study. York University. News Release. July 27, 2011.
Published On: July 31, 2011