Yoga Reduces Pain in Fibromyalgia Patients

Participating in yoga raises the levels of cortisol in women suffering from fibromyalgia, reducing the physical and psychological symptoms of chronic pain.

According to a new study by York University researchers, participating in yoga raises the levels of cortisol in women suffering from fibromyalgia, reducing the physical and psychological symptoms of chronic pain of the participants.

This study is the first that has directly examined the effects of yoga on levels of cortisol in women who suffer from fibromyalgia, a condition which predominantly affects women and is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. Muscle stiffness, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal discomfort, anxiety, and depression are also common factors associated with fibromyalgia.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is created and secreted by the adrenal gland. Cortisol functions as an element of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to stress. Prior studies have shown that women suffering from fibromyalgia have lower-than-average cortisol levels, which contribute to pain, fatigue, and stress sensitivity.

"The secretion of the hormone, cortisol, is dysregulated in women with fibromyalgia" reported the study’s lead author, Kathryn Curtis, a PhD student in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health.

The saliva of the participants in this study showed heightened levels of total cortisol after a session of seventy-five minutes of hatha yoga twice weekly, which lasted over the course of eight weeks.

"Ideally, our cortisol levels peak about thirty to forty minutes after we get up in the morning and decline throughout the day until we're ready to go to sleep," continued Curtis.

"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," said Curtis.

The study participants filled out questionnaires in order to conclude pain intensity before and after the study. The participants reported considerable declines in pain and symptoms connected to fibromyalgia, along with psychological benefits. The women said that after the eight week course of yoga treatment, they felt less helpless, were more accepting of the disease, and were less likely to "catastrophize" over current or future symptoms.

"We saw their levels of mindfulness increase—they were better able to detach from their psychological experience of pain," Curtis stated.

Mindfulness, a type of active mental awareness with Buddhist roots, is attained when an individual concentrates fully on the current moment with a non-judgmental consciousness of interior and exterior 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 said. "Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain."

The study was co-authored by her supervisor, York professor Joel Katz, Canada Research Chair in Health Psychology, and Anna Osadchuk, a York University undergraduate student.

The study, which also serves as Curtis' thesis, was published July 26 in the Journal of Pain Research.