TREATING THE SYMPTOM: Yoga is not a cure for an irregular heartbeat condition known as atrial fibrillation, but it can make the arrhythmia more tolerable and reduce emergency visits to the doctor. Picture: THINKSTOCK
TREATING THE SYMPTOM: Yoga is not a cure for an irregular heartbeat condition known as atrial fibrillation, but it can make the arrhythmia more tolerable and reduce emergency visits to the doctor. Picture: THINKSTOCK

REGULAR yoga classes could help people with a common heart rhythm problem manage their symptoms while also improving their state of mind, say US scientists.

Millions of people around the world have atrial fibrillation, in which the heart’s upper chambers quiver chaotically instead of contracting normally.

People with atrial fibrillation 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 note — which is where add-ons like yoga could come in.

"This may be something they should consider," says Dr 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 programme," says Dr Cade, who was not involved in the new research.

"There are a lot of other benefits of yoga, and there aren’t a lot of negatives," he says.

The new study included 49 people who had atrial fibrillation for an average of five years. For three months, researchers led by Dr Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy from the University of Kansas Medical Centre 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 a minute at the start of the study to between 61 and 62 beats a minute post-yoga.

Participants’ anxiety scores, on a scale of 20 to 80, declined from an average of 34, to 25 after three months of yoga. Depression and general mental health improved as well, Dr Lakkireddy and his colleagues report in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in January.

"People feel more empowered, they feel better, they feel stronger," Dr Cade says. "There are probably a lot of benefits of the yoga besides on atrial fibrillation."

Dr Lakkireddy says that to be helpful, yoga has to be incorporated into daily life — not just picked up for a few months at a time.

He says people with atrial fibrillation shouldn’t expect a cure but 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?’" Dr Lakkireddy says.

"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."

Dr Cade says future studies could look at whether yoga might help people with atrial fibrillation safely cut back on some of their medications.

Still, he says, 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 atrial fibrillation 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 randomised, well-controlled study to really be able to assess the treatment effect of yoga in patients with atrial fibrillation," says Dr Lopes, who was not part of the research team.

"Yoga is something that seems to be a good thing to do, regardless of if you have atrial fibrillation," he says. But, "To make a formal recommendation for patients with (the condition) to do yoga, just based on this study, seems to be a little bit premature for me."

Reuters