Can Yoga Treat a Common Heart Rhythm Disorder?

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In the first study of its kind, cardiology researchers from the University of Kansas Hospital found that a regular yoga practice can reduce episodes of irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation.

The study, which was small and preliminary, also found that doing yoga can reduce depression and anxiety, which sufferers of atrial fibrillation commonly have.

The condition affects more than 2 million Americans and increases the risk of blood clots and stroke. Usual treatments include drugs, which carry side effects, or invasive surgery. But these therapies are only modestly effective, and success varies widely, the authors said.

To determine the effect of a yoga regimen on heart rhythm, the researchers recruited 49 people aged 25 to 70 who had atrial fibrillation but were in otherwise good physical health. The participants, all of whom were new to yoga, spent the first three months of the study adhering to their standard exercise routines — whether that meant running regularly or doing nothing.

For the next three months, they participated in supervised yoga classes for 45 minutes at a time, three times a week. The classes focused on breathing exercises, postures, meditation and relaxation. The study volunteers were also given instructional yoga DVDs and asked to use them daily over the course of the study.

During both phases of the study, participants recorded self-assessments of anxiety, depression and quality of life. Researchers measured their heartbeats using portable monitors and consulted symptom logs completed by the participants.

The results suggest that yoga may be an effective tool for reducing the frequency of atrial fibrillation episodes: patients experienced an average of 3.8 episodes of irregular heartbeat during the control exercise period, and only 2.1 episodes during the yoga period. What’s more, patients reported less depression and anxiety while they were practicing yoga.

“The practice of yoga is known to improve many risk factors for heart disease including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hardening of the arteries, and stress and inflammation in the body,” said lead investigator Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, associate professor of medicine and director of the Center for Excellence in Atrial Fibrillation at the University of Kansas Hospital, in a statement. “There are currently no proven complementary therapies that are known to help decrease the symptoms of atrial fibrillation in a noninvasive fashion with minimal side effects and reasonable safety and efficacy.”

The study was reported at the meeting of the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans.

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