For many chronic pain sufferers, the side effects of using prescription painkillers are just as difficult to manage as the pain itself. Many painkillers in the opiate family reduce people’s ability to react quickly and control their movements; these side effects make it particularly difficult to drive. It also is fairly easy to become addicted to painkillers because they cause a high. For these reasons, many chronic pain sufferers turn to alternative treatments like yoga and meditation to treat their pain.
New research shows that practicing yoga affects the brain and relieves chronic pain. While chronic pain sparks the parts of the brain associated with depression, anxiety, and impaired cognitive function, yoga has the opposite effect on the brain. Dr. Catherine Bushnell at the U.S. National Institutes of Health oversees a program on the ways in which the brain perceives, modifies, and manages pain.
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Dr. Bushnell and her team have found that mind-body practices like yoga and meditation can prevent and even reverse chronic pain because they reduce pain perception and even benefit the brain, itself: as gray matter decreases and white matter integrity improves, the part of the brain associated with consciousness increases in size and connectivity and improves a person’s pain tolerance and thresholds. The major implication of Dr. Bushnell’s study is that yoga and meditation have a real pain-relieving effect on the brain and may be more effective treatments than prescription painkillers for relieving chronic pain.
Chronic Pain and the Mind-Body Relationship
Today, scientists and yoga experts understand that most chronic pain has a physical injury or illness at its root but is sustained because the initial trauma changes the body and the mind-body relationship. For most, chronic pain means the mind and body have learned how to detect even hints of a threat and mount a full protective response, causing intense discomfort; simply put, the pain people feel may be more about a protective mind-body response than about long-lasting pain. In fact, chronic pain is so complex that there are several ways to go about treating it.
Both modern science and yoga recognize that present pain and suffering are rooted in past pain, trauma, stress, loss, and illness: modern science refers to it as neuroplasty, and yoga refers to it as samskara. The mind and body have become accustomed to chronic pain, and through yoga, people can teach the mind and body new ways of dealing with it. That’s why, as a mind-body experience, chronic pain can be positively influenced by yoga’s healing practices including breathing exercises and restorative poses.
Yoga and meditation help a person relax and give the mind and body healthy responses to practice in the face of chronic pain. Transforming chronic pain and stress responses into chronic healing responses is how yoga and meditation relieve the pain. Meditation on positive feelings, relaxation poses, and breathing exercises strengthen the flow of energy in the body and re-center people to their natural sense of well-being.
Relaxation and Chronic Pain Relief
Relaxation especially has a healing effect on chronic pain because it turns off stress responses and directs the body toward repair, immune function, digestion, and other self-healing processes. Relaxation lessens the effects of the mind-body samskaras that add to the pain and serves as a foundation for healing. Consistent, well-practiced meditation and yoga teach the mind and body to rest safely rather than respond to stress and pain. Breathing practices associated with yoga and meditation especially help relax the body and enhance restorative, healing processes.
Recommended Yoga Poses and Meditation Practices for Treating Chronic Pain
There are many possible sequences for restorative yoga to rest the body and engage the mind. The following poses include breathing elements that help people focus on healing thoughts, sensations, and emotions to relieve their chronic pain:
- Nesting pose
- Supported bound angle pose
- Supported backbend pose
- Supported warrior
- Supported forward bend
- Rear arm lift with strap
- Wall plank
Chronic pain sufferers do not need to rely on prescription painkillers that can lead to addiction and are notorious for negative side effects. By practicing yoga and meditation, those who suffer from chronic pain will train their bodies and their minds to approach pain in a healing manner instead of a painful one with stress responses.
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