Fitness Magazine

Yoga and Pain Management

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Shari
Since I have been on a “pain alert” myself for the past 10 days (a very cranky knee is having trouble settling down), I thought I would discuss the difference between acute and chronic pain, and how yoga may assist in pain management.
More than 115 million people nationwide (1 in 3 Americans) suffer from some type of long-term pain, according to the Institute of Medicine. People often try to alleviate pain with conventional therapies and medications. According to the CDC, narcotic pain medication addiction and overdosing accounted for over 16,651 deaths in 2010. When conventional treatment fails, people will often turn to complementary medicine techniques, and yoga is often tried to alleviate pain symptoms.
I thought I would first define the difference between acute and chronic pain. An acute injury will typically resolve within three months of the body’s normal healing process. Chronic or persistent pain is pain that lasts more than this time frame. Acute pain is associated with tissue damage. Pain (nerve) receptors are activated with an acute injury because the body is trying to protect the damaged area - this minimizes usage so normal healing can occur.
But with chronic pain, the brain’s perception of the cause of the pain changes. The inhibitory mechanisms of the central nervous system become faulty, and we may avoid physical activity because we have learned “If I do this, it will hurt.” We may be afraid that, because we are in pain, activity will further damage or injure the area. But generally the tissue damage is healed after three months, and avoidance of physical activity is therefore no longer beneficial in the healing process.
However, the brain may now remember stress and pain in an exaggerated way, as if it were in a continuous sympathetic feed back loop of fight or flight. So some of us can become hyper vigilant about everything that causes pain. But one of the beauties of yoga practice is how helpful it can be for people both in acute and chronic pain!
Yoga and Pain ManagementPhysical asana has properties of both squeezing and soaking areas of the body. Compressive forces, with and without weight bearing, and long restorative poses move fluid, assisting the body to decrease edema in a joint after an acute injury. Decreasing the edema reduces the pressure on nerves and muscles, resulting in a reduction of pain symptoms. (However, it is key to understand how much can you can move your cranky joint and when you need to stop, so see When to Stop Practicing Yoga for information.) Along with the practice of physical asana, long relaxation poses and Savasana can help because of their restorative qualities and the way they quiet the sympathetic nervous system while stimulating the parasympathetic system (the relaxation response). And at this time, modifying the asanas that you regularly do is important. This way, you can still get the benefit of the asana with modifications, and then as the injury heals you can slowly bring the full asanas back into your regime.
For chronic pain the “prescription” is a bit different. Chronic pain is a global body phenomenon. When your body is in chronic pain you walk differently and you may even sit differently. Your attention is often directed to the painful region because keeping it still may make it worse and positional change needs to be frequent. The individual may be chronically exhausted because the ability to sleep well has been affected. There may be difficulty in completing tasks in a timely manner so things “start to slide” and don’t get done. Because energy is limited, the individual may rush through tasks to get things done and then be in more pain because they hurried. It is a terrible wheel to be on and difficult to get off onto solid ground!
In my own practice and teaching of yoga, I try to share with my students how yoga helps to focus the mind, quiet the breath and improve the mental focus. Yoga meets us where we are NOW. Yoga is nonjudgmental and everyone can do yoga. Yoga teaches us self-awareness. Yoga gives hope where there may be no hope.
Simple grounded breathing while you sit on a chair or lie in bed in your position of comfort is a great way to start. Set a timer and do simple breathing for three to five minutes. Notice how this may affect your mind and sense of self. Progressing to GENTLE range of motion of all body parts within your ability and not pushing yourself is beneficial. You can even do your range of motion activities in your position of comfort. Notice your pain levels (0-10) at start of practice and then again when you are done. If your pain levels stay the same, you are teaching your body NOT to be afraid of movement. Once your confidence has improved, then you might be ready to join a local class. Look for instructors who will be sympathetic to your pain but not overly solicitous. Make sure the teacher understands that you will stop when you need to, not necessarily when the teacher tells the class to release the position. Try to set aside five minutes a day to practice your own breathing awareness and your own Savasana. It becomes your sacred time to care for yourself.
Remember, the results may be slow in coming but persistence and gentleness are the keys to relieving and managing both acute and chronic pain.
Note: For my achy, swollen and hot knee, I am trying to work with my available range of motion, not moving too much into pain but inching into the pain and then backing up and repeating multiple times trying to make the available movement  smoother. Also, stretching related areas like my hip flexors, hamstring muscles, gastroc/soleus is really helpful for pain relief of my knee. In the standing poses, I’m working with gentle isometric contractions but not going into my full knee flexion (bending)—pumping a lot. I’m doing a lot of passive inversions like Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall pose) and Chair Shoulderstand, with pumping from my ankles. And, finally, modifying poses, for example, for Virasana (Hero pose), which I was previously able to do without any props, I now use two blocks stacked up high because I have just about 100 degrees of flexion (ability to bend the knee). And, lastly, cautious, aware walking. Patience is the crux though I am not a very patient individual.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog