The effect of relaxation therapy on autonomic functioning, symptoms and daily functioning, in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia: a systematic review

Clin Rehabil. 2015 Mar;29(3):221-33. doi: 10.1177/0269215514542635. Epub 2014 Sep 8.


Objective: To establish the effects of relaxation therapy on autonomic function, pain, fatigue and daily functioning in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.

Method: A systematic literature study was performed. Using specific keywords related to fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome and relaxation therapy, the electronic databases PubMed and Web of Science were searched. Included articles were assessed for their risk of bias and relevant information regarding relaxation was extracted. The review was conducted and reported according to the PRISMA-statement.

Results: Thirteen randomized clinical trials of sufficient quality were included, resulting in a total of 650 fibromyalgia patients (11 studies) and 88 chronic fatigue syndrome patients (3 studies). None of the studies reported effects on autonomic function. Six studies reported the effect of guided imagery on pain and daily functioning in fibromyalgia. The acute effect of a single session of guided imagery was studied in two studies and seems beneficial for pain relief. For other relaxation techniques (eg. muscle relaxation, autogenic training) no conclusive evidence was found for the effect on pain and functioning in fibromyalgia patients comparison to multimodal treatment programs. For fatigue a multimodal approach seemed better than relaxation, as shown in the sole three studies on chronic fatigue syndrome patients.

Conclusion: There is moderate evidence for the acute effect of guided imagery on pain, although the content of the visualization is a matter of debate. Other relaxation formats and the effects on functionality and autonomic function require further study.

Keywords: Chronic fatigue syndrome; autogenic training; autonomic functioning; daily functioning; fatigue; fibromyalgia; imagery; pain; relaxation; visualization.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living*
  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Databases, Bibliographic
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / physiopathology
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / rehabilitation*
  • Female
  • Fibromyalgia / physiopathology
  • Fibromyalgia / rehabilitation*
  • Humans
  • Imagery, Psychotherapy / methods*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Management / methods*
  • Relaxation Therapy / methods*
  • Treatment Outcome