A new study by York University researchers finds that practicing yoga can reduce the physical and psychological symptoms of chronic pain in women with fibromyalgia.
, published online in the Journal of Pain Research
, is the first to look at the effects of yoga on cortisol levels in women with fibromyalgia. The condition, which predominantly affects women, is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. Common symptoms include muscle stiffness, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal discomfort, anxiety, and depression.
Previous research has found that women with fibromyalgia have lower-than-average cortisol levels, which contribute to pain, fatigue, and stress sensitivity. According to the study, participants’ saliva revealed elevated levels of total cortisol following a program of 75 minutes of hatha yoga twice weekly over the course of 8 weeks.
“Ideally, our cortisol levels peak about 30-40 minutes after we get up in the morning and decline throughout the day until we’re ready to go to sleep,” says the study’s lead author, Kathryn Curtis, a PhD student in York’s Department of Psychology, in a news release
. “The secretion of the hormone, cortisol, is dysregulated in women with fibromyalgia.”
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced and released by the adrenal gland and functions as a component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to stress.
“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.”
Participants completed questionnaires to determine pain intensity before and after the study. They reported significant reductions in pain and associated symptoms, as well as psychological benefits. For example, patients were more accepting of their condition 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 said, adding mindfulness “is extremely useful in the management of pain. Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain.”