With millions of Americans addicted to pain medications, it would behoove us all to look at alternative methods of pain management. About 45 people a day die from taking opiods – now the most heavily prescribed class of drugs in the country.
Scientific research abounds proving that yoga can be part of an alternative approach to dealing with pain. The studies are varied and conclusive in their findings – from helping people with migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, low back pain, osteoarthritis, sciatica, anxiety, depression, and a number of other chronic pain conditions, as well as even helping women deal with pain associated with pregnancy, childbirth and labor, yoga often outperforms traditional medical protocols – including opiod prescriptions, NSAIDS, and a numerous additional classes of pharmaceutical drugs.
How Does Yoga Work to Reduce Pain?
Having established that yoga works profoundly well to reduce pain – how exactly does it work?
A study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex explains it quite well. Yoga works not just on the musculoskeletal system, but also on the nervous system and the brain, multiple factors that reduce pain become active.
Yogis Have a Bigger Insular Cortex
As Catherine Bushnell, one of the authors of the study explains, yogis are able to tolerate pain almost twice as long as non-yogis. This was measured by yogis being able to put their hands in freezing cold water for longer durations than non-yogis. Aside from just the physical act of placing their hands in freezing cold water, the brains of both groups in the experiment were imaged. In yogis, a number of brain areas were significantly larger, particularly the insular cortex, which is associated with pain management, coordinating body states with emotional responses, and giving rise to conscious thought.
The study went on to show how these changes in the brain (along with unmentioned changes in the nervous system which have been documented due to yogic breathing) could help to reduce pain for people dealing with a number of complications – and even reduce their reliance on pain medications.
Yogis Breathe Better, Feel Less Pain
Indeed, the breathing part of yoga alone could also be responsible for a greatly reduced experience of pain. The lungs and brain communicate intimately with the brain to tell it that everything is o.k. For example, just increasing the inhale and exhale cycle, we can start to reduce stress hormones which are known to increase our pain sensations.
Research has shown that the vagus nerve as well as certain chemical neurotransmitters account for these effects of breath patterns on heart rate and subsequently on shifting the balance between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic parts of the Autonomic Nervous System. Keep in mind that the ANS is trying to keep all background systems in balance and respond appropriately to ever-changing circumstances throughout our day. This includes stress.
Yogic breathing essentially helps to quell an errant stress response – and instead instills calmness sin our hearts, lungs, brains, and nervous system which can then translate down to cells.
There are even specific yogic breathing techniques, such as sheetali, or the cooling breath which can help alleviate pain from migraines. Other breathing techniques, such as matching your exhale length to your inhale, can help reduce lower back pain. All forms of pranayama (yogic breathing) help us get more in touch with the mind-body connection, which also reduces our pain response, and overall sickness in the body.
Techniques to Reduce Pain You Can Start Right Now
If you want to put some yogic techniques to the test right now to begin to reduce your pain, one of the simplest is to lie on your back and to place your hands on your belly. You will expand your belly with an inhale, and allow the belly to fall back in toward the floor, even creating a cavity in your abdomen, full a full, yogic breath.
This simple breathing activity can be done alone, or added to any number of yogic postures, or included in a meditation.
If you want to practice a breathing meditation, you can simply sit up, with the spine straight, and continue this breathing technique, focusing on allowing the belly to expand as you inhale, and hollow out below the ribs as you exhale. Keep your mind focused on your breathing, and when it tries to stray and think of other things, just name this “thinking,” without placing judgement on what thoughts arise.
Bring your focus back to the breath. Try this for about five minutes a day to start, and increase the duration you practice to be longer as you feel ready. Sometimes within a few moments, pain will begin to subside. If the pain doesn’t go away immediately, keep up the practice and allow your nervous system and brain to communicate more fully.