How Yoga Could Ease Cancer Patients’ Pain and Fatigue

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Researchers in one study find patients who do yoga sleep less but are less tired, while another study sees mood benefits among those who add yoga to exercise

Yoga may help ease the pain and fatigue of cancer treatment, according to new research.

One study conducted at the University of Rochester used two surveys to interrogate why a group of about 300 mostly female cancer patients felt less fatigued following a program of yoga.

Researchers found patients who practiced yoga slept less but had less fatigue, in large part because they cut down on daytime napping. The result was a 37% reduction in “daytime dysfunction”, the study’s most dramatic finding.

“We recommend that doctors prescribe this low-risk, low-cost treatment to all cancer patients with cancer-related fatigue,” said Po-Ju Lin, a researcher from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, who presented one of the studies at the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.

“We would like them to prescribe gentle hatha yoga but they need to refer to appropriate yoga instructors who have experience of working with cancer patients.”

In another study presented at ASCO, researchers at the Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai, India, compared programs of yoga and conventional exercise to conventional exercise alone in an effort to find out if yoga improved quality of life for a group of more than 600 women with breast cancer.

After a year and a half of follow-up, researchers found patients who practiced both yoga and exercise were nearly twice as likely to report improved mood, 34% versus 66%, and had less trouble with general activities, 41% versus 59%.

The principal investigator in the second study said scientists believe that a reduction in cortisol, sometimes called a “stress hormone”, could account for the improved well-being among patients.

Meditation reduces cancer survivors’ fear of disease coming back, study finds

Yoga works on the principle of mind and body health and it would help women cope with systemic therapy side effects better,” said Nita Nair, an associate professor of surgical oncology at Tata Memorial Centre and lead investigator. “Yoga nidra and pranayama also improve sleep patterns. Thus all this together may reduce fatigue and pain.”

In general, research on ways to ease fatigue falls into three main categories, said William Breitbart, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York who focuses on pain and cancer patients and was not involved in the study. Those areas of research are: mitigating physiological side effects such as anemia, prescribing drugs such as amphetamines, and recommending exercise programs such as yoga.

“If you actually look at the scientific literature, most of the effective therapies look at the last group of interventions,” said Breitbart – treatments such as “cognitive behavioral therapy, and more recently interventions like exercise, tai chi and yoga”.

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