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Qigong Reduces Fibromyalgia Pain, More

Qigong can reduce fibromyalgia pain

Whether you know it as qigong, chi gung, or chi kung, the results can be the same. According to a new study, regular practice of the ancient health care practice can reduce fibromyalgia pain and offer other benefits for fibromyalgia patients as well.

How fibromyalgia patients can get drug-free help

For many of the estimated 5 million people in the United States with fibromyalgia, every day or nearly every day is characterized by chronic pain, stiff and tender muscles, aching joints, sleep problems, chronic fatigue, and more health problems that have a significant impact on their lives. In addition to these health issues, patients with fibromyalgia often have to deal with a health care system that may not acknowledge their symptoms or has little to offer them in terms of symptom relief.

If there's one good thing that can be said about fibromyalgia, it's that unlike many other painful and even debilitating conditions, the pain and discomfort associated with fibromyalgia is not accompanied by deformity or damage to the joints, muscles, or organs. This is an important feature, and could be one reason why a gentle yet comprehensive activity like qigong can help provide some relief.

The new study involved 100 people (mostly women; mean age 52 years) with long-standing fibromyalgia who were randomly assigned to participate in a qigong activity group or to a wait-list (controls). The controls entered the qigong program after six months and were referred to as the delayed-treatment group.

Although there are dozens of different forms of qigong, all of them involve three main elements: postures (moving or stationary), breathing techniques, and meditation (mental focus). The availability of many different forms of qigong allows individuals to find one that best suits their needs and abilities.

In the current study, which was conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the participants were taught the Chaoyi Fanhuan form of qigong. This form involves seven specific movements and related exercises that focus on relaxation, release, and sending the body's energy or "qi" throughout the body.

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Study fibromyalgia patients participated in a one-hour practice session once weekly for 8 weeks and were asked to practice the movements and exercises at home every day for six months for 45 to 60 minutes. After the first 8 weeks of practice, the investigators reported the following results:

  • Based on a 10-point scale, patients in the qigong group had a 1.55 point reduction in pain compared with only 0.02 points in controls
  • Based on the 100-point Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire, individuals who participated in qigong reported a decrease of 18.45 points compared with 0.93 points in controls. This questionnaire rates pain, sleep, function, and psychological distress
  • Quality of sleep also improved during the 8-week treatment period based on a sleep quality index of 3.29 points
  • Psychologically, patients in the 8-week treatment group showed an improvement of 5.29 points on a questionnaire

Following the initial 8-week treatment period, the patients said they practiced for a mean of 4.9 hours per week, which declined to 2.9 and 2.7 hours by months 4 and 6, respectively. However, the 52% of patients who practiced at home the most (5 hours per week) enjoyed the most benefits in a number of areas.

Individuals who participated in the delayed treatment also showed improvements similar to those in patients who took part in the immediate qigong sessions and practice in all areas. When the authors combined the results of the two groups, the results revealed sustained effect of qigong on pain at both 4 and 6 months, and benefits persisted through 6 months for impact scores, sleep, and physical and mental well-being.

Other treatments for fibromyalgia
Medical treatments for fibromyalgia consist primarily of three drugs approved for the condition: duloxetine (Cymbalta), milnacipran (Savella), and pregabalin (Lyrica). Other medications, including various anticonvulsants, antidepressants, opioids, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are frequently prescribed to relieve one or more of a patient's various symptoms. All of these medications have side effects.

Complementary and alternative treatments have demonstrated some benefit. For example:

  • A York University study found that yoga may help reduce chronic pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia. The benefit appears to be associated with the ability of yoga to raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which tends to be abnormally low in people who have fibromyalgia.
  • A study conducted at Tufts University found that tai chi helped relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia
  • A University of Florida study found that use of high-frequency vibration therapy can effectively reduce pain associated with fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a challenging syndrome to treat, and so it's important to have treatment options available to patients. Qigong may be one of those options. The authors of the latest study seem to think so, as they noted that qigong may be viewed as "a useful adjunct in the management of fibromyalgia."

Lynch M et al. A randomized controlled trial of qigong for fibromyalgia. Arthritis Research & Therapy 2012 Aug. doi: 10.1186/ar3931

Image: Wikimedia Commons