Yoga may serve as a key tool for preventing or potentially reversing the impact of chronic pain on the brain, says a National Institutes of Health (NIH) official.

According to a news release issued by the American Pain Society, this information was shared during its annual meeting on May 15, 2015.

M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director, Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, noted in a plenary session address that many chronic pain patients exhibit associated anxiety and depression, as well as deficits in cognitive functions. Additionally, the release points out that brain imaging studies in rats and humans have revealed alterations in gray mater volume and white matter integrity in the brain caused by the effects of chronic pain.

Bushnell states in the release that imaging studies in a variety of types of chronic pain patients suggest their brains differ from healthy controls.

“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,” Bushnell says.

In the release, Bushnell also notes that evidence from studies conducted at NIH/NCCIH and other sites indicate that mind-body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can counteract the brain anatomy affects of chronic pain. Practicing yoga yields the opposite effect on the brain as chronic pain, she explains.

Studies suggest yoga practitioners have more gray matter than controls in multiple brain regions, including those involved in pain modulation, she continues.

“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,” Bushnell states.

Upon assessing the impact of brain anatomy on pain reduction, Bushnell reports that gray matter changes in the insula or internal structures of the cerebral cortex are most significant for pain tolerance. Insula gray matter correlates with pain tolerance. Increases in insula gray matter can result from ongoing yoga practice, she adds.

Bushnell concludes in the release “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.”

Source: American Pain Society