Chronic pain can cause changes – even impairments – in brain grey matter. But, according to a new study, but yoga can be an important tool for preventing or even reversing these effects.
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.
Speaking at the American Pain Society’s recent annual meeting, M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director, Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, explained 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.
Bushnell said “Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain,” and cited 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.
Building grey matter
She said the studies show yoga practitioners have more grey matter than non-practitioners 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 grey matter size has been linked with pain tolerance, and ongoing yoga practice has been shown to increase the size of insula grey matter.
Brain anatomy changes may contribute to mood disorders and other emotional problems that often go hand in hand with chronic pain. But, says Bushnell, “The encouraging news for people with chronic pain is mind-body practices seem to exert a protective effect on brain grey matter that counteracts the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain.”