Finding a Better 'Position' to Deal With Disease

"Doctor's Orders" is a new feature in the collaboration between Medpage Today and ABC News. We'll be exploring medical issues of interest to physicians and their patients. In this first monthly segment, we look at the increasing body of research into the effects of yoga yoga in a variety of conditions as interest in this form of therapy grows.

At major cancer centers across the country, patients are putting themselves in a better 'position' to cope with their cancer.

Some of the biggest names in cancer care -- M.D. Anderson, Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, among them -- now offer their patients classes in yoga.

In the past, physicians may have written off the therapy as merely a trendy yuppie pastime. But today, researchers -- mainly psychologists -- are asking questions about the benefits of yoga in a variety of conditions, including cancer, asthma, sleep disorders, depression and attention disorders.

Generally, the studies have shown that yoga improves quality of life and relieves stress and anxiety associated with these conditions. Some researchers say the Ayurvedic therapy may have physiological mechanisms, such as reducing cortisol levels, but those theories are still under evaluation.

A word of caution, though: The studies that have been done so far have yielded soft findings, with little hard data to back up the conclusions. That said, there is no denying that yoga is becoming a presence even in the ivory towers of academic medicine.

Yoga for Cancer Patients

Alyson Moadel, PhD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., has been tracking the effects of yoga on breast cancer patients at Montefiore Medical Center for the past eight years.

In 2007, Moadel reported early findings from the study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology: Patients who did yoga saw improvements in social and emotional well-being, compared with those who didn't.

When data on patients undergoing chemotherapy were excluded, yoga also significantly improved overall quality of life.

"I think it's going to be an important complementary modality," Moadel said. "I don't think it's the only one, but I think it is an important one for dealing with stress and anxiety."

Yoga classes are offered three times a week at Montefiore. Patients gather in a conference room for the seated yoga sessions, which include stretching in a mix of seated and standing poses for the first hour of the class. Then the instructor dims the lights for meditation, breathing and relaxation.

Studies Find Yoga Can Relieve Anxiety, Attention Disorders, Improve Sleep

Moadel said the study has been expanded to include patients with lung cancer and colorectal cancer as well. Most previous studies have focused on breast cancer patients, but other cancers have also been evaluated.

A small study of cancer patients in Japan and published this year in the Journal of Palliative Medicine found yoga may be effective against anxiety. A recent study in cancer found the therapy improved sleep outcomes in lymphoma patients.

And at least one organization, the Society for Integrative Oncology, has issued guidelines recommending that the treatment "should be incorporated as part of a multidisciplinary approach for reducing anxiety, mood disturbance, and chronic pain and for improving quality of life in cancer patients."

Investigators aren't limiting their questions about yoga to cancer, though.

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