A National Institutes of Health (NIH) official speaking at the American Pain Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting suggests that such mind-body techniques as yoga and meditation could help counteract the brain anatomy effects of chronic pain. Yoga could be an important tool for preventing or even reversing these effects, according to a news release from the American Pain Society.

M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director, Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), National Institutes of Health (NIH), speaking during a plenary session at the conference, cites evidence from studies conducted at NIH/NCCIH and other sites that, “Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain.”

Many chronic pain patients, she says in her discussion, per the release, show associated anxiety and depression as well as deficits in cognitive functions. In addition, she says, brain imaging studies in rats and humans have shown alterations in gray matter volume and white matter integrity in the brain caused by the effects of chronic pain.

“Imaging studies in multiple types of chronic pain patients show their brains differ from healthy control subjects,” Bushnell says during her discussion, per the release. “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.”

These studies, she says, suggests that yoga practitioners have more gray matter than controls in multiple brain regions, including those involved in pain modulation. Some gray matter increases in the yoga practitioners correspond with how long they practice yoga, she continues, suggesting that there could be a causative link between practicing yoga and the increases in gray matter.

Gray matter changes in the insula or internal structures of the cerebral cortex are most significant for pain tolerance, Bushnell explains. “Insula gray matter size correlates with pain tolerance, and increases in insula gray matter can result from ongoing yoga practice,” she says.

“Brain anatomy changes may contribute to mood disorders and other affective and cognitive comorbidities of chronic pain,” Bushnell continues in her discussion, per 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,” she adds.

[Source(s): American Pain Society, Science Daily]