Though promising, these results need to be borne out by studies with a larger and more diverse group, including men, who make up 10% to 25% of fibromyalgia patients, says Robert Shmerling, MD, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the clinical chief of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston.
Future studies will also need to test the yoga program against other types of interventions, rather than the participants’ existing treatment. Carson and his colleagues couldn’t rule out the possibility that participating in the yoga classes caused a response, similar to the placebo effect, that improved symptoms over and above the effects of the yoga itself.
Still, the study adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests that gentle exercise could be a valuable treatment for fibromyalgia. Yoga reduced the symptoms of fibromyalgia patients in a 2007 study, and in August of this year, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that tai chi similarly eased symptoms.
The yoga and tai chi studies could help build interest in alternative therapies for fibromyalgia, Dr. Shmerling says. “They will get the neutral doctors and even the doubters into the camp of, ‘Why not try this?’”
Most physicians are interested in prescribing a combination of medication and alternative therapies for fibromyalgia, although a new crop of prescription drugs that are expected to become available in the coming years may temporarily shift attention back to medical treatments, Dr. Shmerling adds.
Carson is planning a larger study that will use sensory tests to explore how exactly yoga might improve fibromyalgia. “We believe that it probably changes [central nervous system] responses to pain signals,” he says.
Fibromyalgia patients who are interested in trying yoga should look for a class that focuses on low-impact poses and an instructor who has experience working with pain patients, Carson says. And because classes that incorporate other coping strategies are hard to find, he recommends complementing yoga with a meditation course at a community or health center.