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Yoga Reduces Chronic Pain in Fibromyalgia, Raises Cortisol


The Cobra and other yoga positions may help reduce chronic pain and other symptoms that affect people who have fibromyalgia, according to a York University study. A contributing factor for this benefit appears to be yoga’s ability to raise levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Yoga is a gentle pain reliever

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that affects approximately 5.8 million people in the United States, most of whom are women. The syndrome is characterized by chronic pain in the muscles, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety and depression, painful tender points at certain parts of the body, and sleep problems.

Thus far, no definitive cause nor cure has been found for fibromyalgia. Therefore, treatment consists of attempts to relieve symptoms using a variety of medications, lifestyle changes, stress management techniques, herbal remedies, and other therapies.

Previous studies have shown that yoga can be an effective approach to providing relief from chronic pain and fatigue in fibromyalgia patients. This new study is the first to evaluate the effects of yoga on cortisol levels in women with the syndrome.

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It’s been shown that women with fibromyalgia have below average levels of cortisol, a state associated with pain, fatigue and sensitivity to stress. In this new study, researchers measured cortisol levels both before and after the volunteers participated in a hatha yoga program that met twice weekly for 75 minutes per session over eight weeks. The women showed elevated levels of cortisol after completing the yoga program.

According to lead author Kathryn Curtis, a PhD student in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, “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.”

Cortisol is a component of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and is produced and released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. Women in the study reported that participation in yoga sessions reduced their pain and associated symptoms, made them feel less helpless, and made them less likely to become overly anxious about their symptoms.

In an earlier study published in Pain in 2010, researchers at Oregon Health & Science University evaluated the effect of an 8-week course of a Yoga of Awareness program or a waiting list control group on 53 women with fibromyalgia. They found that women who participated in the yoga program had significant improvement in pain, fatigue, mood, acceptance, and coping strategies.

Curtis noted that yoga promotes the concept that “we are not our bodies, our experiences, or our pain. This is extremely useful in the management of pain.” She stressed that “our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain.” Individuals who suffer with fibromyalgia may find relief by practicing yoga, preferably with some instruction from a professional who has experience working with fibromyalgia patients.

Carson JW et al. Pain 2010 Nov; 151(2): 530-39
York University