Doing yoga can relieve the symptoms of fibromyalgia by 30 percent — about the same amount as medication, according to a new study. Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition, characterized by widespread pain in muscles and fatigue.

The practice of yoga has increasingly been demonstrated to improve chronic pain and other symptoms of diseases, including cancer and arthritis, said researchers at Oregon Health & Science University.

"It's not an alternative to medication," said study researcher James Carson, a clinical health psychologist and assistant professor at OHSU, "but the techniques in the yoga tradition really address individual needs and can decrease the psychological distress associated with pain."

The new study was published today (Oct. 14) in the journal Pain.

Yoga gets put to the test

Carson's study included 53 women (up to 90 percent of fibromyalgia cases are in women) whose average age was 54. Participants typically had been living with the disorder for at least a decade, and were on a stable treatment regimen of medication.

The patients were divided into two groups, and 25 of the women immediately began a Yoga of Awareness program, developed by Carson. The other 28 women were added to a waiting list for the yoga program, and were used as a control group.

The participants attended one 2-hour class per week for eight weeks, and were encouraged to do at least 20 minutes of yoga daily, five days a week, using DVDs provided by the researchers.

Using a combination of self-reported symptoms and physical measurements of tender points (sensitive areas of the body), the researchers found 77.3 percent of the participants were "at least a little better" as a result of the yoga, compared with 19.2 percent of the control group on standard therapy. In particular, half of those who had done yoga reported a 30 percent reduction in pain.

None of the yoga participants reported a significant worsening of their symptoms at the end of the two-month program, but almost 8 percent of the control group did.

To date, there has been only one other randomized, controlled trial using yoga to treat fibromyalgia, Carson said. Although the results showed overall improvements in pain symptoms, the study was smaller in scope.

Current treatments for fibromyalgia include a combination of medication, exercise and training in coping skills. The researchers said yoga therapy could be a better adjunct to drugs.

"Yoga teaches patients a set of techniques, such as breathing and meditation, in addition to incorporating poses that improve strength and balance," Carson said.

Prescribing yoga for pain

Many doctors have already begun to prescribe yoga to patients. Carol Krucoff, a certified yoga instructor with the American Council on Exercise and author of "Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain" (Raincoat Books, 2010), regularly works with patients who've been referred to her by physicians at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C.

"Yoga is particularly helpful in a multifaceted disorder like fibromyalgia," Krucoff said. "It offers tools to handle symptoms on many levels — physical, psychological and spiritual."

For example, in the study, the 2-hour yoga session was divided into 40 minutes of stretching and 80 minutes of learning breathing techniques. They studied how to apply yoga principles to coping with their condition, discussed yoga with other group members, and trained in mindfulness. Mindfulness — learning how to live in the moment — may be particularly helpful for patients dealing with chronic pain, the researchers said.

"Mindfulness teaches patients to see their pain from a different perspective," Carson told MyHealthNewsDaily. "They learn to understand that a pain flare might be happening at a particular moment, but that moment will pass."

These techniques may have a powerful effect inside the body. Relaxation is known to cause many changes in the body, including decreased heart rate and improved breathing. Because dysregulation of the nervous system is thought to be the source of fibromyalgia symptoms, Carson hopes to study biological changes brought about by yoga teachings such as mindfulness and "healthy acceptance."

"Yoga may be changing the way pain is processed at the neural level," Carson said.

Although the results of his study are promising, its small size and reliance on self-reported information make it difficult to generalize the results.

Carson plans to next look at a larger group of fibromyalgia patients that includes men, and to follow-up with participants for one year to see if the benefits of yoga are more lasting.

This article was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.