Chronic pain and the practice of yoga have opposite effects on your brain’s gray matter. It is known that chronic pain can cause changes and impairments in brain anatomy. Fear not though, as yoga can be a great tool for those trying to prevent or even reverse the detrimental effects that chronic pain has on the brain. This key insight was presented at the American Pain Society’s annual meeting by a National Institute of Health official M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director of the Division of Intramural Research. In a plenary session address, Dr. Bushnell explained that many patients suffering from chronic pain showed association with anxiety, depression and even cognitive function.
Just what is gray matter anyway? It is the tissue in the brain with numerous cell bodies, located in the subcortical and cerebral cortex areas. Reduced gray matter can lead to several damaging effects such as memory impairment, decreased cognitive functioning and emotion related problems. The impact that gray matter loss has is dependent on where it occurs in the brain. Moreover, the negative effects of chronic pain on the brain have been shown through imaging studies done on both rats and humans. Not only does chronic pain alter the brain’s gray matter volume, but it also causes alterations of the white matter integrity in the brain. Dr. Bushnell states that those who suffer multiple types of chronic pain displayed different brain images than those from healthy control subjects as revealed by imaging studies.
On the bright side, Dr. Bushnell says that the National Institute of Health and the National Center of Complementary an Integrative Health have conducted studies with compelling evidence of the benefits of mind-body techniques. Some of these techniques include practicing yoga and taking certain medications that can counteract the effects that chronic pain has on your brain. As it turns out, yoga practitioners actually have more gray matter than control subjects. This additional gray matter can be found in multiple brain regions, including even those involved in pain modulation. Bushnell noted that the duration of yoga practice corresponds to some yogis’ increase in gray matter. That suggests a causative link between enhanced gray matter and yoga practice. She further explained that changes in brain anatomy may contribute to mood disorders as well as other affective and cognitive comorbidities related to chronic pain. In the end, the encouraging piece of news that should be taken by those with chronic pain is that mind-body practices appear to counteract the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain and wield a protective effect on brain gray matter.