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News Articles / Yoga and Chronic Pain Have Opposite Effects on Brain Grey Matter

Yoga and Chronic Pain Have Opposite Effects on Brain Grey Matter

Yoga instructor and yoga class doing tree posture variation

Studies Show Link Between Yoga Practice and Grey Matter Increases

PALM SPRINGS, May 15, 2015–Chronic pain is known to cause brain anatomy changes and impairments, but yoga can be an important tool for preventing or even reversing the effects of chronic pain on the brain, according to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) official speaking at the American Pain Society’s annual meeting today, www.americanpainsociety.org.

M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director, Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, explained in a plenary session address that many chronic pain patients show associated anxiety and depression as well as deficits in cognitive functions. In addition, brain imaging studies in rats and humans have shown alterations in grey matter volume and white matter integrity in the brain caused by the effects of chronic pain.

“Imaging studies in multiple types of chronic pain patients show their brains differ from healthy control subjects,” said Bushnell. “Studies of people with depression show they also have reduced grey matter, and this could contribute to the grey matter changes in pain patients who are depressed. Our research shows that grey matter loss is directly related to the pain when we take depression into account,” said Bushnell.

Grey matter is brain tissue with numerous cell bodies and is located in the cerebral cortex and subcortical areas. The impact of grey matter loss depends on where it occurs in brain. Decreased grey matter can lead to memory impairment, emotional problems and decreased cognitive functioning.

Bushnell said there is compelling evidence from studies conducted at NIH/NCCIH and other sites that mind-body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can counteract the brain anatomy affects of chronic pain. “Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain,” said Bushnell.

She said the studies show yoga practitioners have more grey matter than controls in multiple brain regions, including those involved in pain modulation. “Some grey matter increases in yogis correspond to duration of yoga practice, which suggests there is a causative link between yoga and grey matter increases,” Bushnell noted.

Assessing the impact of brain anatomy on pain reduction, Bushnell said grey matter changes in the insula or internal structures of the cerebral cortex are most significant for pain tolerance. “Insula gray matter size correlates with pain tolerance, and increases in insula gray matter can result from ongoing yoga practice,” said Bushnell.

“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,” Bushnell added.

About the American Pain Society

Based in Chicago, the American Pain Society (APS) is a multidisciplinary community that brings together a diverse group of scientists, clinicians and other professionals to increase the knowledge of pain and transform public policy and clinical practice to reduce pain-related suffering.  APS is the professional home for investigators involved in all aspects of pain research including basic, translational, clinical and health services research to obtain the support and inspiration they need to flourish professionally.  APS strongly advocates expansion of high quality pain research to help advance science to achieve effective and responsible pain relief.  For more information on APS, visit www.americanpainsociety.org.

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