How Yoga Can Help Manage Chronic Pain
Article At A Glance
Chronic pain can be truly debilitating. It’s, of course, painful, but that also multiples to so much more. Chronic pain can add up to create far more problems than just the pain itself—which is certainly bad enough on its own. But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Yoga for chronic pain can actually be a deeply beneficial practice for chronic pain management. And there are a number of reasons for this.
Chronic pain can be truly debilitating. It’s, of course, painful, but that also multiples to so much more. Pain can be isolating, depressing, and make you feel hopeless. It can feel never-ending. It can make you feel helpless. It can cause you to isolate. When you don’t want to be out and about in pain, you might decline social invitations. It can cause financial distress due to missed work. The list can go on and on.
Chronic pain can add up to create far more problems than just the pain itself—which is certainly bad enough on its own. But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Yoga for chronic pain can actually be a deeply beneficial practice for chronic pain management. And there are a number of reasons for this.
A Background Into Chronic Pain and Chronic Pain Management
Chronic pain is defined as pain anywhere in the body that persists for over three months. It can be long lasting or it can come and go. But no matter how it manifests, it’s pretty much guaranteed to interfere with your everyday life in a plethora of negative ways.
Pain science is an incredibly complex and complicated topic that reaches far beyond the scope of this article. Still, there are a few key elements from pain science that can be applied here to help with chronic pain management.
Knowledge is Power When it Comes to Managing Chronic Pain
Education about pain science has actually been shown to help reduce chronic pain! How amazing is that? Just learning about how pain works can help affect pain levels! This is because of the most important factor about all pain, including chronic pain. Pain is the brain’s response to perceived threats. “Perceived” is definitely the operative word there.
A torn ligament does not create pain. A bulging disc does not create pain. Tissue damage does not create pain (and is actually not even well correlated with pain!). The brain creates pain.
Now this isn’t to say that all pain is simply in your head. Pain is a very real and very felt sensation. But it is entirely produced by the brain. So if you can affect your brain (and your overall nervous system), then you can help with pain management, including chronic pain management.
This is why yoga for chronic pain can be such a powerful choice in your arsenal of tools for your chronic pain management.
Yoga for Chronic Pain: Why Yoga Is a Powerful Tool for Chronic Pain Management
Yoga offers a few key practices and focuses that can greatly help with chronic pain management.
Yoga is a practice that encourages mindfulness and presence. This can be especially helpful for people who suffer from chronic pain.
The thing about chronic pain is that it’s often unpredictable. For those who suffer, there is a constant feeling of being “on edge” in fear of the next flare up or excruciating episode. This can cause bracing within the body and nervous system vigilance and hyperactivity. In fear of hurting oneself, many will avoid moving their bodies and constantly live in a state of fear.
This puts you into a sympathetic state in the nervous system (or a “fight-or-flight” response), which chemically and physiologically changes the body. This is not only an unhealthy state to remain in long term, but it actually also increases pain sensations.
When your body is braced, your muscles are tense and your brain is on high alert. Any small little brush against you can be perceived by the agitated brain as a high threat, which will then send out an intense pain response.
Yoga helps to teach presence and relaxation. By becoming mindfully aware of the present moment rather than fearing the future or dwelling on past pain, you can teach your brain and body to relax. This can make all the difference in experienced pain.
We’ve all been hurt before and have the immediate instinct to immobilize to prevent further damage. While in extremely rare circumstances, this may be a helpful response, in the vast majority of cases, movement is actually the one guaranteed way to get out of pain.
Again, the brain creates pain. When the brain has an unclear “map” of a specific part of the body, it feels unsafe and unsure. It may then perceive a soft touch as a threat and initiate a pain response to that touch.
But movement clarifies our brain maps. So the brain feels in control of that area and, therefore, more safe. Gentle, mindful movement not only increases blood circulation and joint lubrication to the part of the body being mobilized, but it also helps to strengthen your cortical maps so that your brain feels safer. And a brain that feels safe equates to a body that feels less pain.
The breath is a powerful tool in your yoga arsenal for chronic pain. Your breath can help shift you into a parasympathetic nervous system response (or your “rest-and-digest” response). By shifting into this side of your nervous system, again, your brain will calm down and be less on edge. This leads to fewer perceived threats and, therefore, fewer pain signals.
Yoga strongly emphasizes a focus on the breath to help bring you into the present moment and to help shift you into your parasympathetic nervous system. All of this equates to an excellent tool for chronic pain management.
Use Yoga for Chronic Pain and Chronic Pain Management
While yoga is not a panacea, it can be a helpful aid in chronic pain management. Use the practice to help you find the present moment, gently move your body, and focus on your breath to help you move into a more parasympathetic-dominant state.
The combination of all of these factors can help to manage chronic pain in a very real and very effective way.