Regular yoga classes could help people with a common heart rhythm problem manage their symptoms while also improving their state of mind, a new study suggests.
According to the American Heart Association, about 2.7 million people in the U.S. have atrial fibrillation (AF), in which the heart's upper chambers quiver chaotically instead of contracting normally.
People with AF are often prescribed drugs such as beta blockers to help control their heart rate and rhythm. But the medicines don't alleviate symptoms for all patients, researchers noted - which is where add-ons like yoga could come in.
"This may be something they should consider," said W. Todd Cade, a physical therapy researcher from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
"Yoga could be a beneficial treatment for people with atrial fibrillation. Obviously they should talk to their doctor before they start a program," Cade, who wasn't involved in the new research, told Reuters Health.
"There are a lot of other benefits of yoga, and there aren't a lot of negatives," he added.
The new study included 49 people who'd had AF for an average of five years. For three months, researchers led by Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy from the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City tracked study volunteers' heart symptoms and their blood pressure and heart rate, as well as their anxiety, depression and general quality of life.
For the second phase of the study, the same participants went to group yoga classes at least twice a week for an additional three months, again reporting on their symptoms and quality of life.
All of the patients were on stable medications throughout the study period.
Nonetheless, the number of times they reported heart quivering - which was confirmed by a heart monitor - dropped from almost four times during the first three months to twice during the yoga intervention phase. Their average heart rate also fell from 67 beats per minute at the start of the study to between 61 and 62 bpm post-yoga.
Participants' anxiety scores declined from an average of 34, on a scale of 20 to 80, to 25 after three months of yoga. Depression and general mental health improved as well, Lakkireddy and his colleagues reported Wednesday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
"People feel more empowered, they feel better, they feel stronger," Cade said. "There are probably a lot of benefits of the yoga besides on atrial fibrillation."
Lakkireddy told Reuters Health that to be helpful, yoga has to be incorporated into daily life - not just picked up for a few months at a time.
He said people with AF shouldn't expect a cure, but that regular yoga may make their arrhythmia "more tolerable" and reduce visits to the emergency room when symptoms flare up.
"A lot of people ask, 'Can I just do yoga and do nothing else?'" Lakkireddy said. "I think that's the wrong approach to take. Yoga is not a cure in itself... it is a good adjunct to what else these patients should be doing."
Cade said future studies could look at whether yoga might help people with AF safely cut back on some of their medications.
Still, he noted, the effect of yoga seen here wasn't "huge," and any possible benefits among heart patients will need to be confirmed - and better explained - in further research.
Dr. Renato Lopes, who studies AF at the Duke Clinical Research Institute in Durham, North Carolina, agreed, adding that based on these findings, it's unclear exactly how yoga might work in the body to improve symptoms.
"We really would like to see a randomized, well-controlled study to really be able to assess the treatment effect of yoga in patients with atrial fibrillation," said Lopes, who wasn't part of the research team.
"Yoga is something that seems to be a good thing to do, regardless of if you have (AF)," he told Reuters Health. But, "To make a formal recommendation for patients with (AF) to do yoga, just based on this study, seems to be a little bit premature for me."