Progressive Muscle Relaxation

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What is progressive muscle relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, involves tensing and releasing the muscles, one body part at a time, to bring about a feeling of physical relaxation.

Some studies of breast cancer patients have shown that PMR can help to reduce:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • anxiety
  • depression

What to expect with progressive muscle relaxation

Researchers report that relaxation training methods, including PMR, work best if a person is trained before cancer treatment starts. The researchers also said that after 2 hours of training from an expert, patients are usually experienced enough to successfully practice the techniques on their own.

For a better idea of what to expect with PMR, try this exercise:

  • Begin by tensing and relaxing the toes of one foot.
  • Inhale as you briefly tense your muscles and exhale when releasing the tension.
  • Gradually, work your way up into the muscles of one leg, tensing and relaxing.
  • Repeat on the other leg.
  • Continue up your body, tensing and relaxing each muscle group: your abdomen, torso, chest, fingertips, arms, shoulders, neck, and face.
  • As you purposely release tension in each area, you may experience a feeling of relief.

Progressive muscle relaxation practitioner requirements

There are no licensing or certification requirements for teaching PMR, but many health care professionals have had PMR training as part of their formal education.

Health care professionals who teach PMR can include:

  • psychologists
  • psychiatric nurses
  • health care professionals trained in hypnosis
  • clinical social workers

Many cancer hospitals and clinics offer programs in relaxation training that includes PMR, so ask your doctor for recommendations.

For more information about finding a qualified complementary medicine practitioner, see our Finding a Complementary Medicine Practitioner section.

Research on progressive muscle relaxation in people with breast cancer

In studies of people with breast cancer, progressive relaxation training has been shown to help reduce nausea, vomiting, anxiety, and depression.

In a South Korean study published in 2005, 30 patients with breast cancer received training in PMR and guided imagery. An additional 30 patients in the study received no training. Both groups then began a 6-cycle chemotherapy regimen. Researchers found that the patients trained in PMR and guided imagery experienced less chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting than the patients who had no training. In addition, the trained patients had much lower levels of anxiety and depression than the untrained patients. Six months after treatment ended, the trained group still experienced a higher quality of life than the untrained group.

In a study published in 2002, 38 breast cancer patients used PMR 1 hour before they received chemotherapy, followed by daily PMR for an additional 5 days. Each PMR session lasted 25 minutes. The 38 patients were compared with a group of 33 patients undergoing chemotherapy without PMR. In the PMR group, the duration of nausea and vomiting was significantly reduced.

Important things to consider before trying progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is generally thought to be a safe practice, but as with all relaxation techniques, there are some risks:

  • Rare increases in anxiety. In rare cases, the increased body awareness that comes with relaxation training has led to more anxiety instead of a reduction in anxiety.
  • Very rare physical symptoms. In some people who use relaxation techniques, there have been extremely rare instances of pain, heart palpitations, and muscle twitching.

People with schizophrenia and other mental disorders should avoid PMR and other forms of relaxation training.

Back to Types of Complementary Techniques

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