Is Yoga Good for Chronic Pain?

Pain is the language of the body. It tells us that something is wrong. Too often we are conditioned to ignore the whispers of sensation, not taking the time and care we need to nourish our bodies. Maybe it’s because we believe that we don’t have enough time to stop and take notice or maybe it’s that we learned along the way if we admitted we had pain, we were considered weak. Whatever the path that led to more disconnection from the body, the same outcome occurs. When the body is ignored for too long, it will continue to try to get your attention, maybe by shouting this time. And the pain increases.  

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, there are an estimated 100 million Americans living with chronic pain, more than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. For years, scientists and the healthcare community thought pain could only be caused by damage to the structure of the body. However, some people suffer from chronic pain in the absence of any past injury or evidence of body damage. Arthritis and back pain, the two most common forms of chronic pain and other forms could be related to past pain, stress, grief or illness. And recent research has discovered the connection between the experience of chronic pain to our thoughts and emotions – our mind. For example, even though an initial injury such as a car accident damages the physical body, the pain is sustained by how the trauma changes the mind-body relationship. Even further, those with more traumatic initial experiences may end up with chronic pain later in life, including fibromyalgia. No matter where the pain originated, the pain is still real for the person suffering. And by understanding chronic pain as a mind-body experience, we can use yoga as a therapy to help find relief.

Yoga therapy reflects a biopsychosocialspiritual approach to managing conditions such as chronic pain. Oftentimes, the individual living with chronic pain believes they are not able to help themselves and become paralyzed with fear of anything that could trigger or increase the pain. In fact, the fear of pain can lead to isolation and opioid addiction. The emphasis in yoga on self-awareness, self-regulation, effort and grace can help to instill and cultivate an individual’s sense of self-efficacy – a crucial component in learning how to manage pain.

Yoga therapists can reach into their yoga toolbox to address the mind-body connection in supporting clients dealing with chronic pain. They often work in conjunction with healthcare professionals to provide complementary support to the individual in creating healthier responses to their pain. Due to the fear of movement exacerbating the pain, the first tools used are often breathing techniques (i.e., pranayama), isolated, supported or slow movements (i.e., asana) and guided meditations to get in touch with the pain. If someone is afraid to move their neck, then you’re not going to make them, so a yoga therapist works with each individual where they are and progresses at the individual’s pace. Through guided meditations, we can even discover if the pain is purely physical or has its origins in the mind.

Through these yoga practices, the individual activates their innate relaxation response and brings the nervous system into rest, renew, heal mode. The stress response is turned off and can now allow the mind and body to learn to rest in a sense of safety rather than fight or flight. Ultimately, these practices are used to help rewire the brain’s response to the pain and empower the individual with tools to manage the pain themselves.

This is a modified version of the article originally printed in Indiana & Yoga Mazagine, Winter 2016

Alyssa Pfennig