Ancient Practice Can Heal Brains Damaged By Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is known to impair brain function, causing problems with memory and the emotions.

Chronic pain is known to impair brain function, causing problems with memory and the emotions.

Yoga can be an effective way to reduce the effects of chronic pain on the brain.

So said Dr M. Catherine Bushnell, an expert on reducing pain without the use of drugs, at the American Pain Society’s recent annual meeting.

Chronic pain causes changes in gray matter volume, studies have shown.

These can lead to memory deficits, emotional problems and lowered cognitive functioning.

Dr Bushnell explained:

“Imaging studies in multiple types of chronic pain patients show their brains differ from healthy control subjects.

Studies of people with depression show they also have reduced gray matter, and this could contribute to the gray matter changes in pain patients who are depressed.

Our research shows that gray matter loss is directly related to the pain when we take depression into account.”

Techniques like yoga and meditation can counteract the negative effects of pain on the brain.

Studies from different labs suggest that yoga increases gray matter volume in critical areas of the brain.

That includes areas which can reduce the experience of pain.

Dr Bushnell said:

“Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain.

Some gray matter increases in yogis correspond to duration of yoga practice, which suggests there is a causative link between yoga and gray matter increases.

Insula gray matter size correlates with pain tolerance, and increases in insula gray matter can result from ongoing yoga practice.”

Mind-body practices can be beneficial to people experiencing pains in all sorts of ways, Dr Bushnell said:

“Brain anatomy changes may contribute to mood disorders and other affective and cognitive comorbidities of chronic pain.

The encouraging news for people with chronic pain is mind-body practices seem to exert a protective effect on brain gray matter that counteracts the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain.”

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Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.