A new study by York University researchers finds that practicing yoga reduces the physical and psychological symptoms of chronic pain in women with fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a condition, predominantly described as widespread abnormal pain, sleep disturbance, muscular pains, numbness and fatigue. Researchers believe that genetics, physical and emotional stressors are possible factors to the development of the illness. It is also difficult to diagnose this condition due to overlapping etiology of the condition.

Previously researchers have found that women with fibromyalgia have lower than average cortisol levels, which contribute to pain, fatigue and stress sensitivity. Cortisol hormones are the body's primary stress hormone, helping the body regulate blood sugar, blood pressure. It also is an anti-inflammatory, an anti-allergic agent and reduces the action of the immune system.

According to the study done by York University researchers, participants’ saliva revealed elevated levels of total cortisol following an eight week long program done twice a week for hour and fifteen minutes of hatha yoga, a style that is slow and gentle in pace providing good introduction to basic yoga poses.

“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, Faculty of Health.

“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,” says Curtis. Cortisol functions as a component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to stress.

Participants completed questionnaires to determine pain intensity pre and post study; they reported significant reductions in pain and associated symptoms, as well as psychological benefits. They felt less helpless, were more accepting of their condition, and were less likely to "catastrophize" over current or future symptoms.

“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 says. “Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain.”

Published in the Journal of Pain Research.