How Yoga Can Help with Chronic Pain

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By Sharen Patel, Registered Yoga Teacher
Integrative Medicine
Moffitt Cancer Center

An increase in the amount of research on the scientific benefits of Yoga has shown favorable results and consequently a growing use of Yoga as a therapeutic practice in hospitals, wellness centers and rehabilitation facilities. Many of these studies have shown that Yoga, which focuses on gentle movement, breath and awareness, offers many benefits to people facing a variety of health conditions. Yoga is being used to address stress, insomnia, nausea, pain and fatigue, as well as to improve an overall sense of well-being.

Decades of pain research have increased our understanding of chronic pain, and most importantly that it is a mind-body process, meaning that it is influenced not only by physical illness and injury but also by our thoughts, attitudes, emotions, past trauma and our level of stress. It shows that there is a very different set of rules when dealing with acute pain and when pain becomes chronic over time. Research is showing how through movement, breath, relaxation and meditation we are able to tap into the mind and body’s natural pain suppressing systems.

The practice of Yoga can be significant in management of chronic pain in that it is an excellent system for dealing with stress. Stress is heightened with pain, but also pain is exacerbated when we are under stress. When stress is high, the breath becomes quick and erratic, the muscles tense and tighten and mood plummets. Yoga offers simple breathing exercises that anyone can do, which can shift the body from a fight-or-flight stress reaction into relaxation mode. In addition, chronic pain can cause shallow breathing and holding the breath, creating a situation where there is less oxygen in the body and more toxins. Yoga helps with deep full breathing – the lungs work, the diaphragm moves and the back and abdominal muscles work. Not only does the body become oxygenated, but the breath becomes one of the most important tools for releasing tensions and anxiety.

Yoga as a tradition also makes the distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is an emotional or physical hurt, whereas suffering is how our mind reacts to the pain. Since our mental reaction to pain and suffering can add to our experience of chronic pain, the practice of Yoga provides a framework to develop a new relationship with our painful body as it helps to cultivate steadiness, ease, acceptance and compassion.

As a complete mind-body system, Yoga offers practices for reducing stress, releasing muscular tension, coping with difficult emotions and for training the mind to be less reactive to painful sensations. Unlike pain pills, which can often become less effective over time, Yoga becomes more effective over time as it creates profound changes to the body, nervous system and well-being. In addition to this, a carefully set up Yoga practice is unlikely to intervene with other pain treatments and the side effects of Yoga are almost always POSITIVE. Yoga is likely to make you feel happier, healthier, stronger, more flexible and relaxed and more effective in your life.

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