Pain, Yoga and the Brain
Written by: Tori Etheridge, BKin, MPT, CN-NINM Therapist, Lead Research Physiotherapist, HealthTech Connex (Published via Pain BC – Live Plan Be)
Chronic pain is linked to our minds through emotions, memory, experiences and mood, and in this way, a form of exercise that targets both the mind and body simultaneously can prove to be extremely beneficial for chronic pain. Yoga is one example of an effective pain-reducing exercise, as it does just that – it exercises both the mind and body.
Pain and the Brain
The brain plays a large role in how we experience and cope with pain. Historically, pain serves as a protective mechanism to warn us of potential danger in our bodies. When pain persists, changes occur to the nervous system which result in it becoming hypersensitive and overactive with respect to feeling pain. Similar to a car alarm that goes off even when no one is breaking into the car, pain messages are repeatedly sent to the brain in the absence of danger. This leads to the experience of pain when it shouldn’t be there. The over-activity of the nervous system bombards the brain with false danger messages, which alters its ability to notice normal sensations in that area of the body (e.g. touch, pressure, hot, cold). Have you noticed that if you touch a painful area it may just “hurt”, but you don’t actually know exactly where the point of contact is? This disconnection from your body is common with chronic pain. This is also why some people lose the ability to pinpoint pain, and rather entire body areas start to hurt or the pain starts to “spread” to other locations in the body.
For someone living with chronic pain who is struggling to get through daily activities, starting an exercise program can seem daunting. For many of us, when something hurts we have been taught to rest it. Resting an injured body part may be warranted at times, but when we move less with chronic pain, we can create a downward spiral of decreased mobility and increased pain. The key is to find activities that challenge the pain system without resulting in flare-ups.
Yoga: A Mind-Body Connector
Yoga focuses on gentle movements that send positive messages to the brain about movement. It also involves key components such as breath work and mindfulness, both of which can also be utilized for pain management outside of yoga. Studies show that breathing exercises lower anxiety and stress, two factors known to negatively influence pain.
Similarly, the mindfulness techniques in yoga can help to rebuild the brain-body map, which may have been lost with the onset of chronic pain (this is the disconnection from your body discussed above). When we feel disconnected from our bodies, we not only lose the ability to feel that body part but we lose the ability to know how it is moving during exercise. Building self-awareness and reestablishing this connection to the body during exercise is key when learning to move again.