Yoga for pain relief - Harvard Health

Yoga for Body pain Relief

Relief / March 10, 2019

restorative yoga for chronic painThere are few things more frustrating to a person with chronic pain than hearing someone say, “Your pain is all in your mind.” But if you’re one of the estimated 50 to 75 million Americans living with chronic pain, these words might actually be the key to relieving your suffering. Chronic pain is in the mind—but this does not mean what you think it means. The experience of pain is real. Pain has a biological basis. It’s just that the source of pain isn’t limited to where one feels it or thinks it is coming from.

Modern science and yoga agree: our present pain and suffering have their roots in our past pain, trauma, stress, loss, and illness.

For decades, scientists and doctors thought that pain could be caused only by damage to the structure of the body. They looked for the source of chronic pain in bulging spinal discs, muscle injuries, and infections. More recent research, however, points to a second source of chronic pain: the very real biology of your thoughts, emotions, expectations, and memories. Most chronic pain has its roots in a physical injury or illness, but it is sustained by how that initial trauma changes not just the body but also the mind-body relationship.

The complexity of chronic pain is actually good news. It means that trying to fix the body with surgeries, pain medications, or physical therapy is not your only hope. By first understanding chronic pain as a mind-body experience and then using yoga’s toolbox of healing practices—including breathing exercises and restorative poses—you can find true relief from pain and begin to reclaim your life.

restorative yoga for chronic painThe Protective Pain Response

Understanding the difference between acute pain and chronic pain will be critical to your ability to reduce and manage your pain. Let’s begin by examining the basic steps of the pain response: sensation, stress, and suffering.

The protective pain response begins when the body experiences some physical threat, such as a cut, a burn, or an inflamed muscle. This threat is detected by specialized nerves and sent through the spinal cord and up to the brain where, among other things, the threat signals are transformed into pain sensations. Emotion-processing areas of the brain also get the message, triggering a wide range of reactions, from fear to anger. Combined, your thoughts and emotions about the physical sensations of pain make up the suffering component of the full pain experience.

To help you take action, the threat signals have been simultaneously routed to the areas of your brain that help the body launch an emergency stress response, coordinating the actions of the nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. The emergency stress response triggers a cascade of physiological changes that give you the energy and focus to protect yourself from life-threatening danger.

Even after the threat is gone, the pain response is not over. The mind and body are very interested in making sure you know how to protect yourself from this threat in the future. So the nervous system begins the process of learning from this experience. Any kind of injury or illness, even one that is short-lived or appears to be fully healed, can change the way the nervous system processes pain.

restorative yoga for chronic painUnderstanding Chronic Pain

Chronic pain differs from acute pain in three important ways. First, the body can become more sensitive to threat, sending threat signals to the brain even when the threat is minor or non-existent. Second, the brain can become more likely to interpret situations as threatening and sensations as painful, producing pain responses that are out of proportion to any real danger. Finally, with repeated pain experiences, the boundaries between the many aspects of the pain response—sensation, suffering, and stress—get blurred. In most cases of chronic pain, the mind and body have learned all too well how to detect the slightest hint of a threat and mount a full protective response in all its glory.

So the things that make pain so effective at helping us survive acute emergencies and handling short-term pain are the very things that make chronic pain so complex and persistent. The pain you feel may reflect a protective mind-body response that has become overprotective.

Pain Again

Why does past pain make you more sensitive to future pain? You can thank one of the great wonders of our nervous system: its ability to learn in response to experience. This ability is called neuroplasticity. Through the repeated experience of pain, the nervous system gets better at detecting threat and producing the protective pain response. So unfortunately, in the case of chronic pain, learning from experience and getting “better” at pain paradoxically means more pain, not less.

Both modern science and yoga share this idea: present pain and suffering have their roots in past pain, trauma, stress, loss, and illness. Modern science uses words like neuroplasticity to describe the process of learning from past experiences; yoga uses the word samskara. Samskaras are the memories of the body and mind that influence how we experience the present moment. Samskaras keep you stuck, feeling the same emotions, thinking the same thoughts, and even experiencing the same pain.

The best way to unlearn chronic stress and pain responses is to give the mind and body healthier responses to practice.

Samskaras do not always lead to suffering—they also lead to positive change. Just as trauma, illness, pain, and stress leave traces on the body and mind, so do positive experiences. What you practice, you become.

Learning is lifelong, and none of the changes you’ve learned have to be permanent. Neuroplasticity can be harnessed for healing. Your mind and body have learned how to “do” chronic pain, and your job is to teach it something new.