Chronic pain affects the whole being; the physical, mental, emotional, and the spiritual. While it is felt in the body, pain is a function of the brain and the nervous system.
Opioid addiction has been at the forefront of many minds in the addiction world in recent years, with deaths from opioid overdoses predicted to reach 650,000 in the next decade, and President Trump’s declaration that America is in the grip of a public health crisis.
The opioid crisis has developed partially as a result of the overprescribing of opioids for pain relief. When a drug is relied on heavily for a person to be able to function normally, tolerance develops and more of the drug is needed for it to be effective, and eventually the relief the drug provides becomes minimal, requiring stronger, and greater quantities, of drugs. Although opioids have a place as a legitimate pain treatment option for those suffering extreme pain, we also need to bring other options to light for those who choose not to take opioids any longer, or can’t due to their addiction issues.
A recent study showed that 2/3 of people who died from overdose were diagnosed with chronic pain and being treated for it before their death. It is important, therefore, that any attempts to treat addiction to opioids make adequate provision for pain relief through other means.
Chronic pain affects the whole being; the physical, mental, emotional, and the spiritual. While it is felt in the body, pain is a function of the brain and the nervous system. Chronic pain alters brain structures, and leaves the sufferer highly prone to depression, anxiety, and reduced mental functioning.
There are several medical approaches to help people deal with opioid addiction, but other complementary, holistic solutions.
Yoga offers one such solution.
Yoga is so much more than an exercise class. It is a path for living that takes into account the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the human existence. It can help ease the depression and stress that can be created by and that create pain and addiction.
Yoga has been shown to positively impact the structure and functioning of the brain, release physical and mental stress, promote relaxation of body and mind, and improve positivity.
M. Catherine Bushnell, Ph.D., of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), found that “Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain.”
1. Yoga changes the brain.
Regular yoga practice was found to increase the insula gray matter of the brain that affects tolerance to pain, making practitioners of yoga more able to cope with pain.
Yoga increases production of the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA deficiency leads to increased sensitivity to pain, as well as anxiety, increased risk of addiction and more. Increasing levels of GABA in the brain reduces anxiety and depression, increases tolerance to pain, and promotes relaxation, all of which help anyone in chronic pain to feel better naturally.
2. Yoga improves relaxation.
Pain and addiction create tremendous stress and tension in the body and mind. This stress only exacerbates the pain felt, as the tension will create pain of its own to add to the existing pain. Yoga practices that promote deep relaxation, like restorative yoga, or Yoga Nidra can combat these effects. The Gitananda tradition, which I was trained in, offers a wonderfully deep relaxation called Kaya Kriya which offers a powerful, dynamic pain relief.
3. Yoga harnesses the power of the breath.
Pranayama, the practice of energy control through the breath, has a powerful impact on body, mind and emotions. Through the breath, we can soothe the nervous system and switch from the flight or fight response created by stress, the state of anxiety and fear, to the relaxation response, one of calm and peace of mind.
Through learning to control, deepen and slow the breath, we can develop increased resilience to stress and pain. Learning to breathe well can be a powerful tool to aid sustainable recovery from addiction, and has been shown to reduce pain in even severe instances.
4. Yoga is meditation.
Studies have shown that meditation practices have a powerful impact on the brain, reducing activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, the area of the brain that controls the extent and location of pain felt, and increasing activity in the areas of the brain that create coping strategies. It has even been suggested that meditation is more effective for the treatment of pain than opiates such as morphine.
5. Yoga improves gratitude.
The yogic concept of Santosha, or gratitude, is becoming very well known as a powerful tool for growth and wellbeing. A regular gratitude practice increases positivity, which tends to lead to improved physical health. There are many anecdotal accounts of people living with chronic pain who have found a daily gratitude practice, listing all the things they can find to be grateful for, to be of tremendous value in helping them manage pain.
Yoga has so much to give to the treatment of addiction, and the reduction of pain, stress, and unhappiness. There is so much more to it than the development of a flexible body, although this is a very good benefit in itself. There is great power in the practices and concepts of a tradition that reaches back down the millenia, and much that we can use to heal our own pain and the national tragedy that is the opioid crisis.