Yoga and Chronic Pain Research
If you’ve been to a yoga class with me, you might have heard me say I geek out on pain papers and read them for fun in my spare time. No, I’m not kidding. I really do. I find pain research fascinating. Pain is so multipronged and there’s so many ways to look at dealing with it. Of course, yoga can be used to deal with chronic pain. Yoga is my primary management tool, since I live with rheumatoid arthritis and five herniated disks. I’m of course always looking for fresh perspectives I can bring to my clients too.
I found three new papers this week that I thought were really exciting from a yoga perspective, so I wanted to share them.
Yoga and Chronic Pain Research:
The buffering role of positive affect on the association between pain intensity and pain related outcomes
This is an exciting paper because it can be summed up by saying if you’re in a better mood, you feel less pain. Research has shown yoga can improve positive affect in as little as one week (1). Slam dunk! Go to yoga and you’ll be in a better mood, and feel less pain.
Ok, yes it’s a little more complicated than that. Positive affect “reflects the extent to which people feel energetic, enthusiastic, cheerful, active and alert.” It’s hypothesized that those feelings give you a resource to draw on when you’re in pain. When your positive affect goes down, your pain perception goes up, your sleep quality goes down and you feel depressed.
This paper looked at the relationship between positive and negative affect and four factors – depressive symptoms, sleep disturbances, pain interference and pain intensity. It found boosting your mood made you less depressed and felt less pain. Increasing your positive affect didn’t do much for your sleep quality and it didn’t make your pain go away.
The yogic takeaway is still go to yoga since it will boost your mood. Other research has addressed yoga and sleep and shown some benefits there.
A cross sectional Study of associations between kinesiophobia, pain, disability, and quality of life in patients with chronic low back pain
Kinesiophobia is the fear of movement. People living with chronic pain often get in a pain/avoidance of movement feedback loop that exacerbates the situation. You live with chronic pain, a certain movement aggravates it, you move less, it hurts more, you get depressed, move less, it hurts more… You see where that goes.
The other movement related approach to chronic pain is to face the pain in an attempt to improve. This is where the yoga can come in. Yoga encourages an inquiry based model to pain. Get to know yourself and your pain better, intimately even. Then with that self knowledge, explore each moment with fresh eyes so you can make appropriate choices in real time. It’s empowering.
This paper found that more fear of movement led to increased pain, disability and lower physical quality of life. Clearly empowering people to take control of their movement could result in improvements in their levels of pain.
New concepts of chronic pain and the potential role of complementary therapies
While this paper looked at nine ingestible compounds for pain management, I’m focusing my comments towards the yoga and meditation component of the paper. What made this paper interesting was its explanation of the brain’s and central nervous system’s pain pathways and all the different points on the path that complementary therapies can target. Since chronic pain is such a complex biochemical response, it makes sense that a multifaceted treatment approach can be more effective.
The research conducted on yoga and meditation addressed in this paper focus on the changes it produces in the brain. Yoga and meditation both increase pain thresholds by increasing grey matter. They can also both effect your brainwaves involved in pain processing.
Nutritional supplements are outside my scope of practice as a yoga professional. I’m still drawing attention to this paper because in my experience, many people who are interested in yoga use alternative health care treatments. These treatments aren’t always held to high enough scrutiny. All health care related modalities should be examined with high standards. If you use these supplements, do your own research, draw your own conclusions and talk to your health care providers.
Yoga and Chronic Pain Research Summary
Remember yoga is an experiential practice. Your experience with the practice is always more important and more valid than distant research. The research allows us to draw connections we may not have otherwise seen. Perhaps it provides conversation points with other disciplines about the potentials of the practice. For some, it provides credibility. See how the research meshes with your practice and what conclusions you can draw for yourself.
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Yoga and Chronic Pain Research – Open access links to the original papers mentioned:
Other articles I’ve written exploring research from a yoga perspective:
Remember, I’m only a yoga teacher, and maybe I’m not even your yoga teacher. Always consult with your health care provider before starting an exercise program. I encourage you to discuss yoga related research with your health care team before implementing any research related ideas. Read my full disclaimer HERE.