Yoga May Prevent or Even Reverse Chronic Pain’s Negative Effects

Did You Know…that yoga may prevent or reverse chronic pain’s negative effects on the brain?

Chronic pain is miserable.  Unfortunately, it also comes with serious adverse effects, such as its well-known negative impacts on brain anatomy.

The amazing news is that, according to a new study, yoga may prevent or even reverse chronic pain’s negative effects (while also lessening the discomfort of the pain in the first place).

Chronic Pain’s Negative Brain Effects 

Research has long proven that chronic pain causes brain anatomy changes and impairments.  Such changes can lead to anxiety and depression as well as cognitive impairments.

Brain imaging studies in rats and humans have even shown changes in gray matter volume and white matter integrity within the brain that are tied directly to the effects of chronic pain.

“Imaging studies in multiple types of chronic pain patients show their brains differ from healthy control subjects,” says M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Bushnell is the scientific director of the Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Bushnell explains that studies of people with depression show they actually have reduced gray matter.


What is Gray Matter?

Gray matter is brain tissue with many cell bodies.  It is located in the cerebral cortexand subcortical areas of the brain. 

Decreased gray matter can result in…

  • Memory impairment
  • Emotional problems
  • Decreased cognitive functioning

     “Our research shows that gray matter loss is directly related to the pain when we take depression into account,” Bushnell says.

How Yoga Protects Your Brain from Chronic Pain’s Impact 

Groundbreaking new studies conducted at NIH/NCCIH and elsewhere show that mind-body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can protect the brain anatomy from effects of chronic pain.

Bushnell explains that practicing yoga actually has the opposite effect on the brain as chronic pain… and therefore counterbalances the negative brain effects of the pain!

Yogis Have More Gray Matter 

Research actually demonstrates that yoga practitioners have more gray matter than controls in multiple regions of their brains, including regions involved in modulating pain.

Bushnell notes that 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.”

Mind-Body Practices Offer Protection 

The fact that brain anatomy changes due to chronic pain may contribute to mood disorders and other affective and cognitive problems seems terribly unfair, considering how miserable chronic pain is to begin with.

That’s why this research is so encouraging.  “Mind-body practices seem to exert a protective effect on brain gray matter that counteracts the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain,” Bushnell says.  And best of all, yoga or other mind-body practices need not be rigorous or perfectly executed to be beneficial.  Mind-body practices are generally free, easy to learn and practice at home, and available to almost suffering with any kind of chronic pain.