Research seeks treatment alternatives to chronic pain

Tuesday, July 31, 2012 - 9:36am

About three years ago, Carolyn Evans began suffering from mysterious stiffness and pain in her hips, knees and ankles. At the same time, she was exhausted but couldn’t sleep.

“At first I thought it was because I had recently quit smoking,” said Evans. “I thought my symptoms might be caused by chemicals releasing back into my system.”

But her pain and fatigue persisted, making it difficult for her to focus, work or exercise. Her doctor referred her to an internist who concluded she must have fibromyalgia, a complex chronic pain syndrome that is common but not well understood. It can sometimes be treated with low doses of anti-depressants, but Evans hesitated to go that route. Instead, she responded to a newspaper ad looking for people take part in a Capital Health clinical trial of qigong (chi gong) as a treatment for fibromyalgia.

Led by Dr. Mary Lynch, a pain specialist at the QEII Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry and anesthesiology at Dalhousie Medical School, the study involved 100 people who had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and were interested in an alternative treatment approach.

Evans didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at her first qigong class.

“At first I couldn’t grasp what the teacher meant by qi, or energy, but then I started to feel the tingling in my fingertips and I understood,” she recalled. She found the movements were easy to perform and didn’t aggravate her pain.

After three mornings of intensive training, Evans and the other participants continued the exercises at home, for 45 minutes a day, with the aid of a DVD.

“Within a few weeks, I was pain free,” she said. “I was sleeping soundly and feeling rested in the morning.”

Friends now say that she glows and Evans feels a new lightness in her step.

“I’m able to relax and don’t get so caught up in things that have no bearing on me,” she said. “I’m so happy I’ve found something that works for me.”

The study is now complete and the results demonstrated that qigong led to improvements in pain, fibromyalgia impact, sleep, and physical and mental function using well-validated measures. Improvements were observed at the end of the training and were sustained at six months. There was also a “dose response” effect such that participants who practised qigong for five hours or more a week (about 45 minutes per day) experienced greater improvement than those who practised less.

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