Many of the patients reported that it felt good to let go of their thoughts and just be inside themselves for a while in the yoga sessions.
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a condition where the heart pumps blood at an irregular and often abnormally fast rate. This disrupts the flow of blood in the chambers of the heart and increases the risk of blood clots, which can result in a stroke.
AF episodes are often accompanied by chest pain, dizziness and sudden and severe shortness of breath (dyspnoea). The symptoms are unpleasant and leave patients feeling anxious and stressed as they wonder when the episode will finish, or as they anticipate the next one.
In paroxysmal AF, the episodes typically last less than 48 hours and stop by themselves, although they can last up to 7 days.
Lead author Maria Wahlström, a nurse who is studying for a PhD at the Sophiahemmet University and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, explains the effect paroxysmal AF has on people's lives:
"Many patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation can't live their lives as they want to - they refuse dinners with friends, concerts and travelling - because they are afraid of an AF episode occurring."
AF is the most common heart rhythm disorder and affects around 1.5-2% of people in the developed world. There is no cure for the condition, and treatment focuses on managing symptoms and preventing complications like stroke by using medication, cardioversion (electric shock to try and restore normal heart rhythm) and catheter ablation (removal of some tissue in the heart).
Improved mental health, lower heart rate, lower blood pressure
Wahlström says many patients use complementary therapy to help them cope with their condition, and she and her colleagues wanted to find out how effective one of these - yoga - might be.
For their study, the researchers randomly assigned 80 patients with paroxysmal AF to attend yoga sessions or to a control group that did not do yoga. Both groups received standard treatment with medication, cardioversion and catheter ablation as needed.
Fast facts about AF
- The risk of developing atrial fibrillation increases with age
- Men and women have the same risk of developing it
- About 1 in 4 people aged 40 years and older will develop the heart condition in their lifetime.
The yoga group had a single 1-hour, instructor-led session of yoga per week for 12 weeks. In the sessions, the patients practiced light movements, deep breathing and meditation.
The researchers measured quality of life, heart rate and blood pressure in all the participants at the start and at the end of the study. To measure quality of life - both physical and mental - the participants filled in two questionnaires: the Short-Form Health Survey (SF-36) and the EuroQoL-5D (EQ-5D) Visual Analogue Scale (VAS).
At the end of the 12 weeks, the yoga group had higher mental health scores on the SF-36 survey, lower heart rate and lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure than the control group.
Also, over the 12 weeks, the yoga group showed improvements in both the mental health scores on the SF-36 survey and the quality of life scores from the EQ-5D VAS survey, while the control group showed no change.
Wahlström suggests the yoga deep breathing exercises may have helped the AF patients balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, leading to less variation in heart rate. Also, breathing and movement exercises may also have beneficial effects on blood pressure.
'Yoga may help patients gain self-control over symptoms'
Wahlström says patients in the yoga group also reported that "it felt good to let go of their thoughts and just be inside themselves for a while."
She notes that perhaps the yoga instruction offered them a way to gain self-control over their symptoms and made them feel less helpless.
The team has already started a larger study involving 140 AF patients randomized to one of three groups: yoga, music relaxation and controls. They want to find out if it is the movement and deep breathing or just the relaxation part of yoga that benefits AF patients.
The researchers also want to examine the extent to which the social component may have an effect - when patients meet for sessions they may feel safe and secure in the company of others who have the same condition.
"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."
Estimates suggest that over 2.6 million Americans have AF. There is also a view that this could be an underestimate, as often the condition is only spotted during routine health checks and many people do not realize they have it.
Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned that people with cardiovascular conditions who practice traditional Chinese exercises like Tai Chi and Qigong may also experience improvements in health and well-being.