Chronic pain is not just a signal sent from an area to the brain. It actually changes the brain chemistry itself, along with other biological changes. But mind-body practices such as meditation and yoga can halt or even reverse these changes. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) made this discovery. M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD is the scientific director of the Division of Intramural Research at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the NIH. She said yoga and other such practices decreased the depression and anxiety associated with chronic pain, and halted or reversed the cognitive deficits such pain often causes. Mouse and human brain scanning tests have shown negative changes associated with gray matter and white matter due to persistent pain. Depression is common in chronic pain cases. The two share the same brain pathway. Depression reduces the volume of gray matter, which in turn further causes the person’s decline.
The loss of volume occurs in two areas of the brain, the cerebral cortex and subcortical regions. Though it depends on where in the brain it takes place, such volume loss can lead to memory loss, cognitive issues, and emotional problems–such as mood disorders anxiety or depression. But Bushnell says their research proves that mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga can counteract these effects. Yoga practitioners were shown to have more gray matter in the aforementioned regions of the brain than those who did not. This suggests that with the ongoing practice of yoga, gray matter increases. Some evidence suggests that the longer yoga is practiced, the more gray matter one builds up in the brain. Another development, ongoing yoga practice may increase the size of the gray matter in the insula, a part of the cerebral cortex. By doing so, it could boost a person’s pain tolerance. If you have chronic pain seek out a doctor or specialist. Or get a second opinion or a referral if your doctor cannot properly treat your condition. Also ask about alternative practices too such as yoga, and see if it may help you.