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How Yoga Helps with Pain Management

by Lisa Smalls

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Pain comes in many forms at different stages of life. Whether you’ve struggled with pain temporarily or you face its challenges on a daily basis, you know that pain is both a mental and physical battle.  

The International Association for Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as a subjective, unpleasant emotional experience due to an actual or potential injury.

Did you notice something interesting in that definition? Pain is not only a physical response but an emotional response. In fact, the experience of pain occurs first in our consciousness and then physiologically.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), “Pain is one of the leading reasons Americans turn to complementary health approaches such as yoga, massage, and meditation — which may help manage pain and other symptoms that are not consistently addressed by prescription drugs and other conventional treatments.”

As it turns out, practicing yoga for pain relief is the third most common complementary modality used by American adults to treat pain, and its use is growing. That’s because yoga attacks pain from all angles, both physical and mental.

Before diving into the ways practicing yoga can aid in physical pain relief, let’s talk about the mental effects of pain.

How Pain Affects our Brain

woman practicing downward dog pose

Before our body feels the physical sensation of pain, our brain structure is affected. In particular, chronic pain reduces the volume of gray matter in our brain.

Gray matter is a darker tissue of the brain that is home to nerve cell bodies.

According to Catherine Bushnell, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health, the size and volume of gray matter tissue correlate with pain tolerance. The more gray matter, the better our tolerance to pain will be.

Studies have shown that the ongoing practice of yoga results in an increase in gray matter in the brain. It’s even been proven to offset the effects of age-related decreases in gray matter volume. Thus, yoga can counteract the negative effects of chronic pain in the brain.

Physical pain comes in many forms. Oftentimes, it’s a result of sustained deep muscle tension that adversely affects microcirculation. The level of intensity one experiences when it comes to pain can be further aggravated by a sedentary lifestyle, lack of exercise, and poor posture.

How Does Yoga Actually Help Us Process and Perceive Pain?

man stretched in yoga pose black and white photo

Not only does yoga alter the actual anatomy of our brain, but it also affects how we cope with the anticipation of pain. This has to do with our nervous system. 

That’s because the asanas (yoga poses) and pranayamas (breathing exercises) practiced in yoga work in tandem to release tension and initiate our body’s relaxation response, which counteracts the detrimental effects to our body’s stress response, known as “fight or flight.”

The term relaxation response was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, the founder of Harvard’s Mind and Body Medical Institute. This relaxation response consists of slowed breathing, a decrease in blood pressure and metabolic function, and a reduction in muscle tension. Research suggests regularly practicing yoga and mindful meditation will create a reflex in you that brings a sense of relaxation more easily over time.

Yet, the benefits of yoga go far beyond catalyzing the body’s relaxation response.

The physical aspects of yoga are meant to increase strength, coordination, and flexibility, while the breathing and meditation aim to help practitioners develop greater awareness of their body and lessen anxiety.

How asanas fight pain

The muscular stretches of asanas optimize tissue functioning, increase blood flow, correct posture, realign our skeleton, and strengthen our muscles. The contractions in tandem with spinal movements and an increased perception of control over one’s own body helps to reduce pain.

How pranayama helps to relax our body and anxieties

woman with eyes closed enjoying the breeze

When we experience pain, our breathing patterns, frequency, and depth are often affected for two reasons.

One is psychological and the other has to do with the acquired tendency to “immobilize” the area in pain to avoid further injury. If this area is in the torso, breathing can become restricted. Breathing when in pain often becomes shallow and strained. 

The autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions, has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. When most people are expecting pain, it triggers the “fight-or-flight" response of the sympathetic nervous system, which also includes the strained breathing. This causes cortisol levels to skyrocket.

On the flip side, studies have observed that when yogis anticipate pain, their parasympathetic nervous system activates. This creates a "tend-and-befriend" or "rest-and-digest" response, as opposed to a "fight-or-flight" response.

Although the mental experience of pain is less talked about, the impact yoga can have here is huge. Even though yoga is more commonly recognized for its aid in physical pain management, the benefits it can have to calm the mind during pain are tremendous. The breathing exercises practiced by yogis help them cope better with stressful situations, whether it’s a case of anxiety or the experience of pain. 

Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath. The deep breathing techniques practiced in yoga are known for relaxing skeletal muscles, reducing anxious thoughts, and X. In fact, some research suggests pranayama lessens activation of the central nervous system, which calms us.

Breathing exercises that work to lessen anxiety are especially important for pain patients that face the fear of their situation worsening. A lot of times, these individuals are fearful physical exercise will only increase their pain. However, that’s often not the case as long as practiced carefully.

To summarize, yoga is helpful in treating musculoskeletal agitations, such as relieving pain from tight muscles, reducing inflammation, and increasing the release of pain-relieving endorphins. However, when practiced incorrectly it can promote issues of chronic pain.

Common Pain Conditions and How Yoga Helps

woman head bowed in pain

#1. Chronic low back pain

Back pain results from misalignment of musculoskeletal components in the back and incorrect posture. Whether back pain is provoked by injury, sleeping on a poor sleeping structure, weight, or a genetic disorder, practicing yoga can act as a natural pain reliever.

That’s because various asanas followed by stretches increase strength in the core strength and stabilization, which are both important for a healthy back. It’s also believed that yoga helps pain patients gain more confidence in increasing mobility through physical exercise (rather than a fear it will make it worse). It’s important that individuals with low back pain introduce certain yoga poses slowly. The introduction of strengthening asanas too early can make pain worse.

#2. Arthritis

According to the Arthritis Foundation, recent scientific studies show that when people with various types of arthritis regularly practice yoga it can help reduce joint pain, improve joint flexibility and function, and lower stress and tension. In some cases, yoga poses must be modified for arthritis patients, but it is definitely an option for those that struggle with the disease.

#3. Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a common pain disorder that is categorized by widespread pain and increased sensitivity to touch across the entire body. Over 10 million Americans are affected by fibromyalgia, 80% being women. Individuals with this disorder have a very low threshold to pain.

There is no cure to fibromyalgia; however, yoga can help improve one’s condition. The relaxation response catalyzed by yoga poses and deep breathing exercises help relieve muscle tension and improve mindset.

#4. Migraines

In the U.S., more than 38 million people suffer from migraines. These chronic headaches are commonly associated with stress. Preliminary studies on yoga as a treatment for migraines show positive results. On top of stretches that promote full body relaxation, yogic breathing helps to balance the autonomic nervous system and reduce stress.

4 Easy Yoga Poses for Pain Management

woman in back practicing yoga on the roof

#1. Child’s Pose

Good for: inflammation

Sit on your heels and spread knees about hip-width or slightly wider with big toes touching. Lengthen your spine up through the crown of your head. On an exhalation, bow forward, draping your torso between your thighs. Your heart and chest should rest between or on top of your thighs. Allow your forehead to come to the floor. Keep your arms long and extended, palms facing down. Hold for up to a minute.

#2. Warrior II

Good for: knee pain

Place feet about four to five feet apart, turning right foot forward and left foot parallel to the back of the mat and pointing inward slightly. Bend right knee over ankle and stretch arms apart, gazing over the fingertips of your right hand. Hold 30 seconds, building up to 60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

#3. Half Happy Baby

Good for: back pain

Lie face up and draw right knee to your chest with the right arm. Grab outside of right knee with the right hand and bring it over to the right side. Relax your lower back. For a deeper stretch, grab the sole of your right foot with your right hand and draw your foot down so right knee comes toward the ground by your right side, keeping right ankle over right knee. Stay one minute. Repeat on opposite side.

#4. Restorative Chest Pose

Good for: neck pain and headache

Roll a mat or towel to three to five inches in diameter. Lie with the roll vertically behind your spine and head. Let your body be heavy on the roll as you close your eyes and relax here. Stay for two to five minutes. 

Are you looking to strengthen yourself in the face of pain or simply to make your body and mind better equipped to cope with challenges? A restorative yoga retreat is a perfect place to learn the fundamentals of yoga for resilience.

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