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Restorative Yoga for Relief of Chronic Pain Conditions

ChronicPainJacquie Eubanks RN BSN

Analyzed data from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) showed that most American adults who were surveyed regarding their overall health and illness-related issues, reported experiencing some level of acute or chronic pain within the previous three months, that ranged in levels from relatively minor to the most severe. Chronic pain, described as daily pain lasting for more than three months, affects over 25 million adults, while nearly 40 million adults experience severe pain. Surprisingly, half of those who reported living with chronic pain rated their overall health “good or better,” however those who experience serious pain are more likely to suffer from poor health, as well as disability.

There appears to be no doubt that a significant number of Americans suffer from pain, making pain management a high priority for many, as the use of prescription pain relievers has more than quadrupled since 1999. With current estimates of over two million Americans suffering from opioid addiction, the interest in complementary and integrative approaches that minimize the potential for negative consequences of pain relief is rapidly growing. As a traditional mind/body practice dating back thousands of years, yoga combines pranayama, focused breathing techniques, with asanas, poses that stretch and strengthen muscles, and shavasana, a deep meditative state of rest, to help to manage pain, stress, anxiety and other symptoms.

Surveys show that people practice yoga to promote wellness, reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood and physical fitness, relax the mind, and enhance quality of life. Different types of yoga, some gentle, some more physical, address individual needs. Some practices consist of a specific series of flowing sequential poses, while others concentrate on body alignment, making use of props, blocks, and ropes to assist working within your own range of motion while holding the poses to allow sufficient time to relax into them. Many embrace restorative yoga to address specific health conditions, including back and neck pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and insomnia. This gentle, slower moving practice focuses on healing one’s thoughts, sensations and emotions, allowing for deeper relaxation, as well as symptom relief.

Yoga exercises were originally practiced to improve health, as well as to strengthen the body, enabling the yogi to sit immobile without discomfort during long periods spent in meditation. Yoga’s breathing, relaxation and meditation techniques help to improve concentration and circulation and reduce muscle tension and stress reactions, minimizing the brain’s perception of pain. With the intense focus on breathing techniques, we can learn to relax the body at will and tune in to our inner strength, until at some point, pain recedes into the background. Learning to truly relax all our muscles counteracts the natural tendency to increase pain-causing muscle tension that adversely affects microcirculation within the muscles and underlying viscera.

Relaxation helps turn off the stress response, and directs the body’s energy toward the growth, repair, immune, digestion and self-nurturing processes, which provide the foundation for healing. Consistent practice teaches the body and the mind to rest in a sense of safety and security, transforming the chronic pain response into a more protective healing response, improving the sense of wellbeing. Restorative yoga is about letting go of tension and stress; resting the body, but engaging the mind. Catherine Bushnell, PhD scientific director of NCCIH and her research colleagues have found that chronic pain can be prevented or reversed through mind-body practices and suggest that yoga may have neuroprotective effects. It appears that yoga practitioners have a significant increase in pain tolerance and better coping responses to the anticipation of pain. As opposed to the release of the stress hormone cortisol during the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system, when yogis anticipate pain, the parasympathetic nervous system activates a “tend and befriend” or “rest and digest” response.

Many begin yoga practice as a physical exercise, as it offers approaches to relax, energize, remodel and strengthen the body and psyche. Those who practice regularly will discover that yoga influences the whole person mentally, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Postures that realign the body open the vital flow of energy, thereby breaking the cycle of pain-reinforcing forces and cultivating a sense of wellbeing. Researchers continue to study the effects of yoga and other complementary practices on the brain; the hope is that in the future these alternative treatments may replace pharmaceuticals, and effectively relieve the chronic pain disease process.

Before beginning practice, inform your yoga instructor of any pain or limiting health issues. A knowledgeable teacher will adapt the poses to accommodate your specific needs.

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Yoga: In Depth. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm
NIH Analysis Shows Americans Are In Pain. https://nccih.nih.gov/news/press/08112015
NIH Study Shows Prevalence of Chronic or Severe Pain in U.S. Adults. http://americanpainsociety.org/about-us/press-room/nih-study-shows-prevalence-of-chronic-or-severe-pain-in-u-s-adults
America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse
Yoga for Pain Relief. http://www.everydayhealth.com/pain-management/yoga-for-pain-relief.aspx
Restorative Yoga for Chronic Pain. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/restorative-yoga-for-chronic-pain
How Does Yoga Relive Chronic Pain? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201505/how-does-yoga-relieve-chronic-pain
The Beginner’s Guide to Every Type of Yoga Out There. http://dailyburn.com/life/fitness/yoga-for-beginners-kundalini-yin-bikram/
Pain Management with Yoga. http://www.americanyogaassociation.org/18pain.html
Perspectives on Yoga Inputs in the Management of Chronic Pain. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2936076/