Can Yoga Help Patients with Chronic Pain?

15 Sep

Chronic pain is one of the most common complaints in the developed world. One of the biggest problems with chronic pain is its effect on the brain, both physically and emotionally. “Psychic exhaustion” is a term often used to describe this crippling effect. In fact, a study done at the Stanford University School of Medicine identified a set of changes in key parts of the brain that may explain chronic pain’s capacity to stifle motivation. Dr. Robert Malenka, the co-director of the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neuroscience writes, “With chronic pain, your whole life changes in a way that doesn’t happen with acute pain. Yet this absence of motivation caused by chronic pain, which can continue even when the pain is transiently relieved, has been largely ignored by medical science.”

Dr. M. Catherine Bushnell, a scientific director at the National Institutes of Health notes, “Imaging studies in multiple types of chronic pain patients show their brains differ from healthy control subjects. Studies of people with depression show they also have reduced gray matter, and this could contribute to the gray matter changes in pain patients who are depressed. Our research shows that gray matter loss is directly related to the pain when we take depression into account.”

So, what does yoga have to do with chronic pain? Dr. Bushnell adds that studies show yoga practitioners have more gray matter than non-yoga practitioners in multiple brain regions, including those involved in pain modulation. She adds, “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.” If further research confirms yoga benefits the brains of people who already have chronic pain, someday doctors may prescribe yoga to this class of patients as part of their overall treatment strategy.

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