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St. Kate’s professor investigating yoga's effects on osteoarthritis

Assistant professor of nursing Corjena Cheung has been named a 2010-2012 Claire M. Fagin Fellow.
Assistant professor of nursing Corjena Cheung has been named a 2010-2012 Claire M. Fagin Fellow.
Photo by Pauline Oo
When Corjena Cheung, Ph.D., RN, submitted her proposal for the highly competitive American Academy of Nursing’s 2010-2012 Claire M. Fagin Fellowship, the assistant professor of nursing at St. Catherine University felt like David — with only staff and sling — against the giant armor-clad Goliath with sword and shield.

Her plan was to test the feasibility and impact of an Iyengar yoga exercise program for women over the age of 65 with osteoarthritis. Two hurdles, however, stood in her way. There have only been five studies focusing on osteoarthritis in the sponsored-research world, and past recipients of the coveted $120,000 purse came from big-name schools and research institutes like Harvard and Duke.

"Often money is put toward diseases that are more life-threatening," Cheung says. "Arthritis is something that affects the quality of your life. It’s painful, and debilitating. But you won’t die from it."

The large grant amount, she adds, provided the motivation she needed to complete the proposal. "I figured even if I didn’t get the grant, I would still have a good proposal ready to go," she says.

Cheung, who hails from Hong Kong and earned a bachelor's in nursing from St. Kate's in 1987, was named a Claire M. Fagin Fellow in May. She was one of eight in the United States to achieve the honor.

The fellowship program, funded by The John A. Hartford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, is part of a multi-million dollar national initiative to produce expert researchers, academicians and practitioners who will lead the field of gerontological nursing, and ultimately, improve the care of the older adults.

Currently, Cheung is recruiting an expert panel of four to six Iyengar yoga instructors to help her design an eight-week intervention involving group- and home-based exercises sessions for older women with osteoarthritis of the knee and hip. Once that yoga program is in place, she will turn her attention to conducting a randomized controlled trial and recruiting 38 participants to test the program.

Yoga is a mind-body practice with roots in ancient Indian philosophy. It combines physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana). There are numerous schools of yoga. Hatha yoga, which emphasizes asanas and pranayama, is the most commonly practiced in the United States.

No woman is an island

During her two-year study, Professor Corjena Cheung will collaborate with more than 10 colleagues across the nation and a handful at St. Kate's.

"Without the feedback and support from other experts, you don’t grow as much," she says.

Iyengar yoga, which Cheung has chosen to focus on, is a form of hatha yoga in which its practitioners use different props, like chairs, elastic bands and wood blocks, to achieve the asanas.

"Its approach is gentler," she explains, "and people who have some kind of physical limitation can participate in it."

Arthritis affects an estimated 46 million Americans — nearly one in every five people. Of the more than 100 arthritis conditions, osteoarthritis is the most prevalent. Roughly 70–85 percent of people over 55 are afflicted with it, with women suffering at higher rates than men. The chronic degenerative condition often develops gradually and causes stiffness, pain and loss of movement in the joint.

"Currently, the Arthritis Foundation recommends yoga to promote joint flexibility and muscle strength," Cheung says. "However, I don’t see a lot of evidence to support this. What poses should these people do? How often? How long?"

Arthritis treatment typically includes medication, and side effects from a long-term pharmacological approach are often a concern.

Cheung, whose project mentors include renowned gerontological nursing experts Dr. Jean Wyman (University of Minnesota) and Dr. Barbara Resnick (University of Maryland), hopes to be able to provide some answers at the end of her two-year study.

“I try not to have any bias or preconceived opinions about things,” she says. “But I want to give people who have osteoarthritis more options to manage their condition."

Should her pilot project prove successful, it will be expanded to a larger trial group and men with arthritis will be included in the mix.

"I’m especially grateful to my program director and department," Cheung says. "They gave me the green light to pursue this." She also credits St. Kate's new strategic direction for landing the prestigious fellowship.

"Becoming a university means more support for faculty research activities," she says. "Students can learn from a teacher who has a passion in a certain area. They can learn not to be afraid to try, to explore and to find out things."

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Aug. 12, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Alumnae/i, Faculty, Healthcare