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Chronic Pain, Yoga Have Opposite Effects on the Brain

By Michael Cole

Research finds that chronic pain can actually change the physical structure of the brain. Changes in anatomy leading to cognitive impairments have been observed in brains where chronic pain is a factor. On the other hand, yoga has been observed to have the exact opposite effect, whereby damage to the brain caused by chronic pain is prevented or even reversed.

These findings are based on previous research that has demonstrated that chronic pain patients are more susceptible to psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, which also creates cognitive shortcomings. Furthermore, brain imaging studies conducted on rats have shown literal shrinking of grey matter, and changes in white matter integrity occurred in rat brains that were subjected to chronic pain.

A healthy person’s brain looks much different than that of a chronic pain patient. Depressed patients have been observed to have less grey matter. Scientists speculate that this decrease is related to that observed in chronic pain patients. 

Grey Matter Matters

Grey matter is important brain tissue because it is loaded with numerous cell bodies necessary for proper mental functioning. How a loss of grey matter affects a person depends on where in the brain the reduction is occurring. Memory loss, emotional problems, and decreased cognitive functioning are all associated with grey matter loss.

However, this loss in gray matter has been noted to be reversed by patients who practice mind-body techniques like yoga and meditation. It seems as though practicing yoga creates an opposite affect to that of chronic pain in the brains of those who practice it.

Yoga practitioners have more grey matter in the areas of the brain that are responsible for pain modulation. Sometimes when grey matter increases due to yoga, it corresponds to how long the practice session lasts. This suggests to scientists that there is a direct link between yoga and brain matter increases.

Because yoga postures can sometimes be painful to hold, it is interesting that they appear to have an opposite affect on the brain in comparison to chronic pain. Yoga encourages a slow and gradual movement into uncomfortable postures. Perhaps it is by consciously experiencing a slight discomfort in degrees that can be intentionally increased or decreased that the pain regulation areas of a yoga practitioner’s brains become more developed. This conscious control over tolerable levels of pain is also followed by a relaxing release of the posture that fills the body with relief. It is perhaps this dynamic that helps yoga to build up grey matter in the brain. 

To learn more about your health, wellness and fitness, see your local chiropractor at The Joint Chiropractic in Lawrenceville, Ga.

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