10/09/2012 12:32 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Two Ways to Help Relieve Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a disorder affecting more than 5 million Americans. It can cause persistent fatigue and pain in the muscles and soft tissue. Other symptoms include problems with thinking and memory, headaches, and sleep disturbance.

There is no definitive test for fibromyalgia, making it difficult to diagnose and treat. The exact cause of fibromyalgia is currently unknown. Current research reports that two mind-body exercises, yoga and tai chi, can help relieve fibromyalgia.

Yoga Helps Combat Fibromyalgia

A small but significant study published in the journal Pain suggests that yoga can help improve fibromyalgia symptoms. Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore. randomly assigned 53 female patients with fibromyalgia either to a yoga program or standard medication treatment (control group) for eight weeks. Fibromyalgia symptom assessments using questionnaires and physical tests were obtained from the participants.

The Yoga of Awareness program included gentle yoga poses, meditation, yoga breathing (pranayama), yoga coping instructions and yoga group discussions.

The researchers found that the yoga group had significant improvement in fibromyalgia symptoms including pain, mood, fatigue, poor sleep, memory problems and coping strategies. Furthermore, the yoga group had a 24 percent decrease in pain, 30 percent decrease in fatigue and 42 percent decrease in depression.

A 2011 pilot study, published in the Journal of Pain Research, reports yoga can help reduce chronic pain in women with fibromyalgia. This is the first study to examine yoga's effects on cortisol levels in fibromyalgia patients.

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. Fibromyalgia patients are known to have lower than normal cortisol levels, which contributes to pain and fatigue.

Canadian researchers at York University assigned 22 women with fibromyalgia to 75-minute hatha yoga class twice weekly for eight weeks. Cortisol saliva tests and questionnaires about pain and mindfulness were obtained from the participants.

The researchers found that the participants had higher levels of cortisol after yoga intervention. Furthermore, the participants reported significantly reduced pain and enhanced mindfulness.

"Hatha yoga promotes physical relaxation by decreasing activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which lowers heart rate and increases breath volume," says study author Kathryn Curtis, Ph.D. student in York's Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, in a news report. "We believe this in turn has a positive effect on the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis."

Tai Chi Helps Relieve Fibromyalgia Symptoms

A clinical trial, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reveals that tai chi can help improve symptoms in fibromyalgia patients. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that includes slow, controlled, meditative movements.

Researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston randomly assigned 66 patients with fibromyalgia either to a tai chi class or a conventional health education and stretching class (control) two times weekly for three months. Fibromyalgia symptom assessments were obtained from the participants.

The researchers found that the tai chi group had significant improvement in pain, mood, quality of life, sleep and exercise capacity compared to the health education (control) group. Furthermore, the improvements were maintained for 24 weeks.

A larger study, presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, suggests tai chi benefited arthritis patients, including those with fibromyalgia.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Medicine randomly assigned 354 arthritis patients either to an eight-week, twice-weekly tai chi course or a delayed control group. The delayed control group received the Tai Chi course after eight weeks. Arthritis symptom assessments were obtained from the participants.

The researchers found that the tai chi participants had improvements in pain, fatigue, stiffness, balance and well being.

"Our study shows that there are significant benefits of the Tai Chi course for individuals with all types of arthritis, including fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis," says lead study author, Leigh Callahan, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Medicine. "We found this in both rural and urban settings across a southeastern state and a northeastern state."

To learn more about yoga for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, download a free sample from Elaine Gavalas' book, "The Yoga Minibook for Energy and Strength."

You can buy Elaine Gavalas' books here.

Elaine Gavalas is an exercise physiologist, yoga therapist, weight management specialist, nutritionist and healthy recipe developer.

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