Yoga is at the top of my list for ways to get out of pain, and more importantly, stay out of pain. It is the end of a long and busy day and I have been sacrificing my posture and trying not to hunch over while I treat patients with acupuncture, give massage, work at the computer, wash dishes, and carry my thirty pound child on my left hip. My mid and upper back are killing me. Going to bed in pain is the last thing that I want to do. My quick fix is ten minutes of yoga. I would love to practice for an hour or more, but if time and my child does not permit it, ten minutes is all I need to feel an incredible difference in the way my body feels.
Yoga is all about alignment, breath and focus. In yoga practice we typically practice postures on both the left and right sides of the body and for similar amounts of time. This is so different from the way we do things in our lives. We typically write with one hand, use a mouse with only one hand, pick things up with our dominant side, and favor one side for any number of reasons. Yoga helps reign all of our daily imbalances in, and find some balance in our body. By stretching and moving our bodies to open and move in ways that we might not typically move and equally moving and using each side of our body in the same way, we are creating alignment in our structure. Alignment is crucial for staying out of pain.
Not only does yoga create alignment, increase flexibility, and improve muscular strength - it has a neuroprotective effects. Brain anatomy studies are showing that people who regularly practice yoga (ongoing regular practice for at least 6 years) had more grey matter in regions of the brain than the controls (healthy people of the same age, sex, and education, who exercise, but do not practice yoga). As we age, we lose grey matter, however yoga practitioners did not have the decrease in grey matter that the general population did. Pain perception is also different in the group of yoga practitioners, their tolerance for pain was increased and thresholds for pain are higher.
What makes yoga provide all of these benefits? Chantal Villemure, who is studying the benefits of yoga on chronic pain, believes that the benefits of yoga are due to the autonomic nervous system and overall stress reduction (1). The autonomic nervous system is in control of the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” feedback. When expecting pain, most people respond with the sympathetic nervous system that triggers the “fight or flight” response and causes cortisol levels to rise. During the study, Villemure found that yoga practitioners who are anticipating pain respond with the parasympathetic nervous system, causing a “rest and digest” reaction. Yoga practitioners are better able to cope with stress, and pain. These autonomic nervous system changes are likely due to the practice of conscious breathing and meditation that are such an integral part of yoga.
Another recent study found yoga to be as effective as physical therapy for back pain (2). People who did yoga for 12 weeks had less pain, and continued to have less pain for over a year. The best results occurred in those who continued to practice yoga.
With the opioid epidemic finally recognized for the disaster that it is, doctors are requesting pain patients seek more effective ways of treating pain. Rather than prescribe pain medications, which cause dependency, doctors are prescribing acupuncture, massage, physical therapy or yoga. A combination of these therapies is ideal if possible, as they do not take away from the effects of one another, and in my opinion, create a synergistic healing response with superior effects.
(2) Yoga as Good as Physical Therapy for Back Pain - Medscape - Sep 29, 2016