Yoga can prevent / reverse the effects of chronic pain on the brain


A recent speech given by an official from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has revealed that yoga can be a vital aid in preventing or reversing the effects of chronic pain on the brain. Dr. M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, stated during a plenary session address that those who suffer chronic pain can show problems in cognitive function, as well as associated anxiety and depression. Brain imaging studies show that those with chronic pain have differences in their brain, as do individuals who suffer from depression. In patients facing both conditions, the depression is directly related to their pain.

The loss of grey matter can have serious effects for individuals. They can suffer from memory loss, impaired cognitive functioning and emotional issues. They can also display severe mood swings.

Dr. Bushnell stated, however, that there is a silver lining to the cloud of chronic pain, in the form of holistic techniques such as yoga and meditation. These activities have the opposite effect on the brain that chronic pain does.

Previous studies established that assiduous practitioners of yoga have more grey matter in various brain regions (including those that control pain) than control groups. As the duration of the yoga practices increases, so too does the amount of grey matter, which shows that yoga does have measurable positive effects on the brain. When it comes to pain, increases in grey matter in an area called the insula are particularly important, since increased grey matter in this area correlates with a higher pain tolerance.

It is no wonder that yoga is currently use in a variety of settings in which cognitive functioning, depression and anxiety, are issues to overcome. In rehabilitation settings, for instance, yoga is a much revered activity for recovering addicts seeking to battle stress.

Yoga is affordable and has no side-effects, making it an ideal practice that can have huge potential in terms of keeping health costs down. Yoga has already been found to quell back pain and headaches; it can significantly reduce the need for medication and reduce possible side-effects. Yoga can also help with arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine and many other chronic pain conditions.

Studies have shown that meditation also helps preserve grey matter. One in particular, carried out by scientists at UCLA, compared 50 people who meditated regularly for various years, with 50 people who did not meditate. Both sets of subjects showed a decline in grey matter, though those who meditated had a much slower decline. High resolution magnetic resonance imaging was used to show that the greater degree of grey matter preservation in the meditation group. The researchers noted that the findings were particularly significant, because they had initially expected only small differences between the two groups.

Like yoga, meditation is currently being used to treat issues like ADHD, depression and anxiety, and memory loss. The practice has also been shown to promote healthy telomeres (the ‘caps’ at the end of chromosomes that protect DNA). Meditation has also been used successfully to help lower blood pressure and to strengthen the immune system. The practice has been found to help the elderly, as well as those in rehabilitation centers for addiction, and those battling anxiety and depression. Considering that depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the world, ‘alternative therapies’ like yoga should be embraced wholeheartedly, since yogis across the globe report dramatic improvements after just a few sessions.

One groundbreaking study by scientists at Harvard University used neuroimaging to show that yoga and meditation have a true biological effect that reaches beyond the brain. The study, which focused on subjects with high levels of stress, showed that just one session of relaxation-response practice was sufficient to enhance the expression of genes which play a role in insulin expression and energy metabolism, and to reduce the expression of genes involved in inflammatory response and stress. Even absolute beginners who have never practiced yoga and meditation, displayed significant improvements.

Even those who cannot commit to a daily or weekly yoga/meditation program can benefit considerably from simple breathing exercises, or regular meditation sessions at home. If possible, yoga and meditation under the guiding hand of a skilled professional should be pursued, to obtain the maximum benefits of these millenary practice for body and mind.

Contributed by reader, Jennifer Hooton


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