THURSDAY, July 26, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- The ancient practice of yoga might boost stroke survivors' balance and help them become more active, a small new study suggests.
The study included 47 patients -- approximately three-quarters male -- who had suffered a stroke more than six months earlier and were assigned to one of three groups: a twice-weekly yoga group for eight weeks; a "yoga-plus" group that met twice weekly and also included a relaxation recording at least three times a week; and a usual care group.
The yoga classes were taught by a registered yoga therapist and included modified yoga postures, relaxation and meditation. The yoga classes became more challenging each week.
Compared to patients in the usual care group, those in the yoga groups showed significant improvements in their balance, were less afraid of falling and had higher scores for independence and quality of life.
The study was published July 26 in the journal Stroke.
Many stroke survivors encounter long-term balance problems, which are associated with greater disability and an increased risk of falls.
The new findings show that "something like yoga in a group environment is cost effective and appears to improve motor function and balance" for stroke survivors, lead researcher Arlene Schmid said in a journal news release.
Schmid noted that rehabilitation therapy for stroke patients typically ends after six months but brain changes and physical improvements can continue to occur after six months.
"The problem is the health care system is not necessarily willing to pay for that change," said Schmid, who is a rehabilitation research scientist at Roudebush Veterans Administration Medical Center and Indiana University in Indianapolis. "The study demonstrated that with some assistance, even chronic stroke patients with significant paralysis on one side can manage to do modified yoga poses."
Schmid is also an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Indiana University-Purdue University.
One expert who works with stroke patients believes there is a great need for effective rehabilitation strategies.
"Anything that can reduce the risk of falls -- a common sequel of stroke -- is also welcome, as is anything that improves mood and lessens symptoms of depression in the post-stroke patient," said Dr. Roger Bonomo, director of stroke care at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Yoga, however, "is not going to be available [for many stroke patients] for treatment until physical therapists are also yoga certified," Bonomo added. Still, "it is good to have a treatment modality that makes a difference even six months or more after the stroke."
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about post-stroke rehabilitation.