Yoga Helps Cancer Survivors Sleep Better

Study Shows 4-Week Yoga Program Eases Fatigue of Patients Who Underwent Cancer Treatment

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

May 20, 2010 -- A customized yoga program may help cancer survivors to sleep better, feel less tired, and generally feel better.

In a new study, the four-week program, which combines aspects of gentle Hatha and restorative yoga, also cut survivors' use of sleep medication.

Sleep problems and fatigue are among the most common problems experienced by cancer survivors. Approximately 80% and 95% of patients report fatigue during and after treatment, respectively, and as many as 80% and 65% experience sleep problems during and after therapy.

The new study involved 410 people who reported sleep problems and fatigue two months to two years after completing chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgical treatment for early-stage cancer. Nearly all were women; 75% had been treated for breast cancer.

About half participated in a four-week, twice-weekly yoga program designed specifically for cancer survivors that included breathing and mindfulness exercises and poses in standing, seated, and lying-down positions.

All got "usual care" -- that is, whatever other medicines or interventions their doctors prescribed.

Karen Mustian, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of radiation oncology and community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, presented the findings at a news briefing held in advance of the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

At the start of the study, both the yoga and no-yoga group had poor sleep quality, as evidenced by an average score of 9 and 9.2 points, respectively, on a 21-point sleep impairment scale, in which higher scores correspond to worse sleep.

After four weeks, their scores had dropped to an average of 7.2 and 7.9 points, respectively. This corresponds to a 22% improvement in sleep quality in the yoga group vs. a 12% improvement in the no-yoga group, Mustian tells WebMD.

Yoga Eases Fatigue

Yoga participants also fared better on every other measure looked at:

  • Their average scores on a questionnaire commonly used to measure fatigue in cancer patients dropped by 42% vs. 12% in the no-yoga group.
  • Their average scores on a scale used to measure daytime sleepiness dropped by 29% vs. 5% in the no-yoga group.
  • Their average scores on a questionnaire commonly used to measure quality of life improved by 6% while there was no change in the no-yoga group.
  • They cut their use of over-the-counter and prescription sleep medications by an average of 21% while those in the no-yoga group used 5% more sleep medication on average.

The customized yoga program used in the study is not yet available to yoga instructors, Mustian says.

Cancer survivors "looking for this kind of benefit should probably look for gentle Hatha or restorative yoga taught by a well-qualified instructor registered with the Yoga Alliance," she says.

"We can't say it will help everyone, but that's a starting place," Mustian says.

As for other forms of yoga, "we can't say they are safe or effective for cancer survivors," she says.

Yoga most likely exerts its benefits by reducing stress and boosting immune function, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus, tells WebMD.

Kiecolt-Glaser, who was not involved with this work, is conducting a study designed to examine the effects of yoga on fatigue, immune function, and mood in breast cancer survivors.

The experts note that yoga is an adjunct, not a replacement, for usual care.


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SOURCES: American Society of Clinical Oncology news briefing, May 20, 2010.

Karen Mustian, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of radiation oncology and community and preventive medicine, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, N.Y.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, Columbus.

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