A new research study finds that yoga is an effective intervention to improve quality of life among people who experience atrial fibrillation, an irregular, often rapid heartbeat that often causes poor blood flow.
Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation can occur at anytime without warning. Symptoms associated with atrial fibrillation include chest pain, shortness of breath, and dizziness. The fear of experiencing these complications often limit what a person chooses to do and can severely compromise quality of life.
The new study, published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, discovered the practice of yoga reduced heart rate and blood pressure and improved quality of life.
Researchers believe the benefits may stem from providing individuals a method to gain some self-control over symptoms instead of feeling helpless.
“Many patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (AF) can’t live their lives as they want to — they refuse dinners with friends, concerts, and traveling — because they are afraid of an AF episode occurring,” said Maria Wahlström, a nurse and Ph.D. candidate at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
“AF episodes are accompanied by chest pain, dyspnoea, and dizziness,” said Wahlström. “These symptoms are unpleasant and patients feel anxious, worried, and stressed that an AF episode will occur. Most patients are still working and take sick leave to visit the hospital. Many patients with AF use complementary therapies so it is necessary to find out if they actually help.”
AF is the most common cardiac rhythm disorder, affecting 1.5 to two percent of the general population in the developed world. There is no cure for AF, and management focuses on relief of symptoms and the prevention of complications such as stroke using cardioversion, ablation, and medication.
Patients with paroxysmal AF experience episodes of rapid heart rates that usually last less than 48 hours and stop by themselves, although in some patients they can last up to seven days.
The current study included 80 patients with paroxysmal AF who were randomized to yoga or a control group that did not do yoga. Both groups received standard treatment with medication, cardioversion, and catheter ablation as needed.
Yoga was performed for one hour, once a week, for 12 weeks in the hospital with an experienced instructor. The yoga program included light movements, deep breathing, and meditation.
Quality of life, heart rate, and blood pressure were measured in all patients at the start and end of the study. Quality of life (physical and mental health) was assessed using two validated questionnaires, the Short-Form Health Survey (SF-36) and the EuroQoL-5D (EQ-5D) Visual Analogue Scale (VAS).
After 12 weeks, the yoga group had higher SF-36 mental health scores, lower heart rate, and lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure than the control group.
Wahlström said, “We found that patients who did yoga had a better quality of life, lower heart rate, and lower blood pressure than patients who did not do yoga. It could be that the deep breathing balances the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, leading to less variation in heart rate. The breathing and movement may have beneficial effects on blood pressure.”
Within the yoga group, both the EQ-5D VAS scores and SF-36 mental health scores improved during the study, while there was no change in the control group between the initial and final measurements.
“Yoga may improve quality of life in patients with paroxysmal AF because it gives them a method to gain some self-control over their symptoms instead of feeling helpless,” said Wahlström. “Patients in the yoga group said it felt good to let go of their thoughts and just be inside themselves for awhile.”
New research will include a larger study of patients with symptomatic paroxysmal AF who will be randomized to yoga, music relaxation, or a control group. This will clarify whether the movement and deep breathing in yoga are beneficial or only the relaxation.
Investigators say it will also address the potential for group therapy (itself beneficial) as people with the condition may feel safe and secure when they meet others with the same illness.
Said Wahlström, “A lot of the patients I meet who have paroxysmal AF are very stressed. Yoga should be offered as a complementary therapy to help them relax. It may also reduce their visits to hospital by lowering their anxiety until an AF episode stops.”