Chronic pain is a devastating health condition that can affect almost every aspect of your life. You can rely on prescription pain killers, but that is only a short term solution that carries some serious risks like addiction. Instead, you should adopt a proactive pain management strategy that is sustainable for months or years.
Chronic pain management may include techniques like physical therapy or cognitive training. Physical therapy assists in recovering lost body functionality, ameliorating pain symptoms and raising pain tolerance. Cognitive training equips you with the ability to mitigate pain and reduce stress.
Yoga is another popular way to manage pain, one that combines physical and mental techniques to holistically manage chronic pain. This centuries-old discipline combines low-impact exercises with mental relaxation techniques to produce a more fit and harmonious self.
A Short History of Yoga
It is believed that yoga was initially developed in India almost 2,500 years ago. It quickly became popular in Indian culture and was practiced alongside religions like Hinduism and Buddhism (although yoga does recognize spirituality, it is not necessarily a religious practice). Over the millennia, yoga has splintered into multiple specialties like Jainism, Tantra or Hatha.
In the mid-nineteenth century, yoga migrated to the west, initially to Europe. At first, yoga was regarded as a semi-religious, form of meditation and quickly became an interest of Western intellectuals. However, by the early twentieth century, yoga had also become a subject of medical study.
In modern culture, yoga has become a purely secular form of physical exercise that also contains elements of spiritual enlightenment. Yoga has become increasingly popular in the United States where it has gone from 4 million practitioners in 2001 to 20 million in 2011.
What Is Yoga?
At its heart, yoga is a set of exercises that improve strength and flexibility while also simultaneously promoting mental peace and stress reduction. When most people think of yoga, they imagine various poses that yoga practitioners assume. These poses have been refined over the centuries and designed to open channels of energy that enable maximum peace, healing and harmony. These poses are often held for a period of time and sequentially ordered to maximize efficacy.
There is also a mental component that is essential to yoga. This starts with rhythmic breathing that helps connect mind and body. Yoga also emphasizes ordered thinking that benefits chronic pain sufferers. Long-time practitioners of yoga often experience heightened mental serenity that helps ward off stress and is a powerful coping mechanism for pain.
You may find yoga classes at most fitness centers, but you can practice yoga at home once you know what you are doing. Normally, sessions last from 45 to 90 minutes, but you should go at your own pace. There are many types of yoga, some more strenuous than others; discuss any new yoga class with your doctor to make sure it is appropriate for you and there is minimal risk of injury.
Medical Benefits of Yoga
As an enduring form of exercise, yoga has long been recognized as a healthy fitness discipline. Although there is ongoing debate about whether yoga has real health benefits, there are some reliable studies that link yoga and pain management success. Yoga does increase muscle mass and flexibility, but its greatest benefit for chronic pain patients may be its ability to promote neuron growth.
Neurogenesis has a powerful impact on pain tolerance, and yoga appears to bulk up this process. One study performed at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that yoga increases the gray matter in parts of the brain where pain is processed. Normally, chronic pain would diminish these areas, but the mind-body discipline of yoga counteracts this degenerative process.
How yoga provides these neurogenesis effects is not fully understood, but there is a theory that yoga acts on the autonomic nervous system which modulates stress. In a normal person, chronic pain triggers a “fight or flight” response which raises the stress hormone cortisol. In one study, it was found that yogis were able to circumvent this natural response.
Yoga Exercises for Pain Management
If you are considering yoga to help with your pain symptoms, there are some techniques you may want to try.
- Diaphragmatic breathing—inhale for a count of five, filling your lungs as full as possible. Then exhale for a count of seven while concentrating on tensing your abdominal muscles. Wait for a count of three, then repeat. This exercise should help you relax and mentally center on yourself.
- Mindful meditation—after you have mastered rhythmic breathing, you may want to take the next step. While performing your breathing exercises, you should concentrate on the expansion and contraction of your chest. Imagine how the air is passing through your airways and lungs then passed back out of your body.
- Side stretch—from a standing position, extend one arm and use your other hand to grab the wrist of the extended arm. Gently pull the extended arm over your head and over to the opposite side of your body. Repeat with the other side. This exercise should help loosen your back muscles and neck.
- Supported fish—place a large pillow on the ground and lie with your back on it. Your head, shoulders and back should be supported, but spread your limbs out. This should help your chest muscles expand, allowing better circulation and oxygenation.
- Downward dog—with your feet planted flat on the ground, extend your arms as far forward on the ground while only bending at the hips. Maintain this position for a seven count, relax, then repeat. This should help with back and neck pain, as well as fibromyalgia and headaches.
- Sitting wall stretch—lie with hips a few inches from a wall. Gently raise one leg as vertical as possible, followed by the other. At full stretch, you should have both heels extended up the wall as far as possible. This technique may assist with lower back pain, neck pain and fibromyalgia.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
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