Is Yoga a Helpful Treatment for Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes significant musculoskeletal pain, along with changes in the ability to sleep, think, and remember.

The name for the disease comes from a combination of Latin and Greek terms, including fibro, or fibrous tissue, myo, meaning muscle, and algia, meaning pain.

Doctors often consider fibromyalgia to be an arthritis-related condition, but it is different from typical arthritic conditions in that, although it causes pain, it does not cause significant damage to muscles or joints.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three medications to treat fibromyalgia. However, these medications do not cure the condition so doctors may recommend that people with fibromyalgia look to alternative therapies, such as yoga, to alleviate pain and muscle stiffness.

How might yoga help with fibromyalgia?

Yoga is a practice that incorporates self-care measures, such as relaxation, meditation, and deep breathing. It is a meditative movement practice that involves engaging in a series of coordinated movements while focusing on breathing, relaxation, meditation, or a combination. Similar practices include Tai chi and qi gong.

Many different types of yoga exist. Some focus on slow, controlled movements, while others can be as intensive as a hard run:

  • Hatha yoga is the most common type of yoga taught at most American yoga classes
  • Restorative yoga is a low-effort, but rejuvenating practice incorporating assistive devices, such as blankets, bolsters, and blocks
  • Ashtanga yoga is an intense and challenging style that involves practicing a specific series of poses in the same order
  • Bikram yoga involves progressing through 26 poses in a heated room
  • Vinyasa yoga is a continuous, flowing type of yoga that can be physically challenging

Doctors have not defined a specific type of yoga that is best for people with fibromyalgia. Anyone practicing yoga should take into account any personal physical limitations, especially if they plan to engage in intense exercise or want to exercise in hot temperatures.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), while research regarding the effectiveness of yoga in benefitting those with fibromyalgia is “promising,” there is not enough evidence to conclusively determine that yoga can help people who have the disorder.

Several research studies and analyses have been conducted regarding yoga and fibromyalgia:

  • A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, summarized the effects an 8-week course of yoga and meditation had on 11 people with fibromyalgia. Following the study, participants reported significant improvements in the number of days they “felt good” and did not miss work for reasons related to fibromyalgia. However, participants did not report decreased incidences of pain and fatigue.
  • A 2013 analysis of three research studies, published in the Journal of Pain Research, found that yoga helped to reduce sleep disturbances, fatigue, and depression while also improving the quality of life. However, the authors noted that there are not enough significant studies to confirm a link between yoga and reduced symptoms of fibromyalgia.
  • A 2010 research study published in the journal Pain studied 53 female fibromyalgia patients who participated in an 8-week Yoga of Awareness program. This program included meditation, breathing exercises, gentle poses, and yoga-based instructions for coping with symptoms. After finishing the program, the participants reported significant improvements in measures of pain, fatigue, and mood associated with fibromyalgia.

Three yoga poses for fibromyalgia

Many yoga poses could potentially benefit a person with fibromyalgia, but some specific poses are recommended in the book Yoga for Fibromyalgia by Shoosh Crotzer. However, before embarking on this type of exercise, it is best to talk to a doctor. All of these poses have variations that people can adopt according to their ability.

Standing forward bend, or Uttanasana, yoga pose
The Uttanasana pose may be recommended as beneficial to people with fibromyalgia.

Standing forward bend, or Uttanasana:

The standing forward bend pose involves standing with the feet hip-width apart and bending forward from the hip joints. If possible, people should place their fingertips or palms on the floor. If they cannot stretch this much, they should place their palms on the tops of the thighs or calves instead.

After staying in this position for 30-60 seconds, slowly roll the body up until standing up straight. Anyone with a bad back may prefer to keep their knees bent.

Bridge pose, or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana:

The person starts lying on the floor on their back. Bend the knees, putting both feet on the floor. They should straighten their arms and, if possible, clasp them together as they exhale and lift their tailbone off the floor, tightening the buttocks as they lift. Hold this pose anywhere from 30-60 seconds. They should then exhale as they slowly roll their lower back and spine toward the floor.

To protect the neck and reduce discomfort while lying face-up on the floor, a rolled-up blanket can be placed under the shoulders. Anyone with a history of neck injury should avoid this pose.

Cobra pose, or Bhujangasana:

The cobra pose can stretch tired legs and open up the chest muscles. To perform this pose, people should lie face-down on the floor and put their hands under their shoulders, palms on the floor. Put the elbows back toward the body. Inhale and push into the palms, straightening the arms until the upper body is lifted off the floor. However, people shouldn’t lift their feet or pelvic bone off the floor. Feel the stretch across the chest and in the lower back.

People should hold the position for 15-30 seconds, then release the pose and return to the starting position. Those who have a headache, carpal tunnel syndrome, a back injury, or are pregnant should be cautious with, or avoid this pose.

Practicing these poses daily may enhance a sense of well-being.

Additional health benefits of yoga

Many studies have looked at the overall benefits of yoga in reducing stress and boosting physical and mental health. According to an analysis in Health Psychology Review, participation in yoga appears to reduce the release of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress response in the body. Other psychological benefits can include a more positive affect and increased mindfulness.

What additional approaches may help those with fibromyalgia?

Woman has pain in her neck
A very high percentage of people with fibromyalgia are female.

Tai chi is another movement-related practice that may help to relieve fibromyalgia. Like yoga, Tai chi combines the practices of meditation, slow and controlled movements, and deep breathing.

According to the NCCIH, people with fibromyalgia who participated in hourly Tai chi sessions for 12 weeks found their sleep, mood, and overall quality of life improved.

Additional approaches may include:

  • Acupuncture, a Chinese technique that involves applying needles at various specific points on the body to encourage blood and energy flow through the body. However, there is a lack of conclusive evidence that acupuncture will always benefit people with fibromyalgia.
  • Massage therapy involves using the hands to manipulate muscles and soft tissues, and it can help to relieve stress and anxiety in people with fibromyalgia.
  • Sleep and resting well can benefit a person with fibromyalgia. This includes going to sleep at a regular time and avoiding excessive daytime napping that can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
  • Regular exercise can help to decrease pain symptoms associated with fibromyalgia. Moderate exercises, such as swimming, riding a bicycle, engaging in water aerobics, and walking are recommended. Overly strenuous exercise may worsen the pain.

As with most medical conditions, practicing healthy self-care measures, including eating nutritious foods, can help a person live better with fibromyalgia.

Causes risk factors and symptoms

The cause of fibromyalgia is not always clear, but it may appear after one of the following events:

  • A physically or emotionally stressful event, such as after an automobile accident or post-traumatic stress
  • An infection or another form of illness
  • A repetitive injury

Researchers believe the repeated nerve stimulation associated with fibromyalgia can affect a person’s brain receptors, causing them to be more sensitive to painful stimulation. Those with fibromyalgia may also have higher levels of neurotransmitters that signal pain.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 80-90 percent of people with fibromyalgia are women. Other factors that increase the risk of developing the disorder include a family history of fibromyalgia, or a history of a rheumatic condition, such as lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, osteoarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis.

The main symptom of fibromyalgia is pain, but people may also experience cramping in the lower abdomen, depression, fatigue, headaches, sleep problems, tingling in the arms and legs, and painful menstruation. Cognitive function may be affected.

Other pain-related conditions that may occur include chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

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