Chronic pain can be helped and even reversed by yoga.
M. Catherine Bushnell , PhD, scientific director, Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, said there is compelling evidence from studies conducted at NIH/NCCIH and other sites that mind-body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can counteract the brain anatomy affects of chronic pain.
“Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain,” said Bushnell.
She told the audience that many chronic pain patients show associated anxiety and depression as well as deficits in cognitive functions. In addition, brain imaging studies in rats and humans have shown alterations in gray matter volume and white matter integrity in the brain caused by the effects of chronic pain.
Decreased gray matter in the brain can lead to memory impairment, emotional problems and decreased cognitive functioning.
She said the studies show yoga practitioners have more gray matter than non-practitioners, in multiple brain regions including those involved in pain modulation. “Some gray matter increases in yogis correspond to duration of yoga practice, which suggests there is a causative link between yoga and gray matter increases,” Bushnell noted.
Assessing the impact of brain anatomy on pain reduction, Bushnell said gray matter changes in the insula or internal structures of the cerebral cortex are most significant for pain tolerance. “Insula gray matter size correlates with pain tolerance, and increases in insula gray matter can result from ongoing yoga practice,” said Bushnell.
“Brain anatomy changes may contribute to mood disorders and other affective and cognitive co-morbidities of chronic pain. The encouraging news for people with chronic pain is mind-body practices seem to exert a protective effect on brain gray matter that counteracts the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain,” Bushnell added.
Chronic pain sufferers who are in pain obviously often have a hard time working up the inclination and the energy to exercise. Prevention Magazine ran an article about 5 basic yoga exercises that chronic pain sufferers should try.