Restorative Yoga For Chronic Pain

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Living With Chronic Pain

Millions of people worldwide live with chronic pain, including 100 million Americans and it is the leading cause of disability in the United States that significantly interferes with quality of life and general productivity. 

Consider these stagerring statistics:

  • 4 times more people suffer from chronic pain than diabetes
  • 6 times more people suffer from chronic pain than heart disease
  • 14 times more people suffer from chronic pain than stroke  
  • 8 times more people suffer from chronic pain than cancer 

The dollar cost of chronic pain to the US health care system is $635 billion per year, which includes disability, medical care, lost wages, and lost productivity.  

According to a survey of chronic pain sufferers by the American Pain Foundation:

  • 59% of sufferers reported an impact on quality and enjoyment of life
  • 77% reported depression
  • 70% reported trouble with focus and concentration
  • 64% reported loss in energy levels as a result of pain
  • 86% of sufferers reported sleep problems as a result of pain

In fact, you may be surprised that the affected demographic of people living with chronic pain is not seniors, but many younger adults and even children. 

At this point, you may be asking, “how does chronic pain manifest?” and a good question it is. In fact, there are many ways chronic pain presents: 

  • Chronic back pain normally occurs as a result of an inflammatory process ongoing in the spine, with or without obvious cause. Some people may try painkillers, but they rarely solve the problem at its roots and pose risk for addiction.
  • Migraines are particularly debilitating on a productive workforce. In contrast to a condition like chronic back pain, where a certain position may facilitate normal work, migraines are not alleviated by reduction of physical work, and often only rest will ease the symptoms.
  • Joint Pain differs from back pain in the sense that cartilage and ligaments are affected. Degenerative conditions could speed up breakdown of these protective elements around the joints, leading to pain upon movement of the particular juncture. This is typical in arthritis.
  • Nerve pain is normally intractable in nature, which means that a clear cause cannot be identified and treatment cannot be properly initiated. This type of pain may occur anywhere in the body, and may or may not affect large areas at once. Sufferers may explain symptoms as a series of painful pricks or sensations like electric shocks over and over again. 

In fact there are more than 130 medical conditions that feature chronic pain, including fibromyalgia, arthritis, bursitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) just to name a few.

There is hope for those affected yet. Where conventional medical therapy has failed, alternative treatments have provided hope to those affected. Proven techniques that are thousands of years old.

Why Movement Is Key In Managing Chronic Pain

If there is one single factor that can improve the prognosis of chronic pain, movement and daily activity would have to be it. There is no other variable that can have as significant a role in improving symptoms of chronic pain, immediately and over the long term.

However, for those in pain all the time or most of the time moving may not be an easy task, especially when it seems like every step or move you make worsens the pain. 

However, this time, pain is actually, what you need. See, as you perform repetitive activity over and over, it becomes far less taxing and painful on your body, and will improve body function over a matter of weeks.

Immobility does no favors for your body- regardless of your age, the phrase “move it or lose it” is very much true. 

Inactivity leads to weakening of the support structures of the body, further predisposing/ worsening arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, and a range of muscular conditions.

How Movement Benefits Those With Chronic Pain

  • Reduces the “pain threshold button” so that after a few days of activity you will lose the apprehension and fear of exercise and movement.
  • Reduces Stress Levels And Improves Mood – it can be a real downer and a worry to constantly dwell on the fact that your pain is limiting you from truly living. Moreover, in conditions like fibromyalgia depression is often felt by sufferers. Movement helps you gain peace of mind, leaves you happier for it, reduces stress, and makes you better able to handle normal daily stress.
  • Improves Sleep – increased daily activity typically correlates with increased nightly growth hormone and melatonin release. The result is deeper, restorative rest.
  • Improves Cardio-Pulmonary Health – anyone who does not partake in regular movement based activity will know the feeling of “shortness of breath” after a brief period of exertion. By working the heart a little bit at a time every day, you are able to improve the efficiency at which the lungs fill blood with oxygen, and the heart’s transport of it around the body. Cramps and nerve tingling are also likely to improve.
  • Helps Keep Excess Weight Off – there’s nothing more effective for getting rid of calories than movement and exercise. Sure, sitting all day will still burn some calories, since your body needs sustenance to survive, but you will slowly be accruing a surplus that will reflect on your waistline and other unflattering areas. This is key for those who suffer with chronic pain because weight loss helps and overweight and obesity makes pain conditions worse.
  • Keeps Your Mind Sharp – being a couch potato is no fun for the body or mind. Similarly, to the muscles and joints, neurons in the brain can also atrophy from a state of disuse. By making movement a part of your daily lifestyle, blood flow is improved to the brain, as well as the deep linking connections that preserve our memory and who we are for longer.

The Role Of The Relaxation Response In Managing Pain

Have you ever heard of the relaxation response? Chances are it may have been a fleeting discussion at work, or even in a healthcare practitioner’s clinic.

The relaxation response is the exact opposite of the fight or flight response reaction to stress within the body. It is in fact, a physical state of deep rest that counteracts the turbulent changes caused by stress. 

What Can The Relaxation Response Do?

The relaxation response has the exact opposite effects that stress has on your mind and body. 

  • Physically, it reduces heart rate, breathing, and metabolic rates, along with muscle tension and blood pressure. 
  • Mentally, it reduces anxiety and brings feelings of calm and wellbeing protecting you from depression, and even chronic disease. 

The major benefits of the relaxation response stem for the ability to suppress the “fight or flight” response embedded in the human body, one that was critically important for our survival as a species in primitive times, but no so much nowadays. 

Today, the stress response is associated more with increasing stress hormone levels; epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, in response to trivial scenarios such as being late for work, traffic and of course living with chronic pain. 

The relaxation of these stressors can lead to profound improvement in health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally/emotionally, leading to improvements in:

  • Chronic Pain – many mechanisms come into play that result in chronic pain, but the relaxation response can help by allowing muscles to relax, and increasing stimulation of the para-sympathetic nervous system, involved in pain relief and calmness. In fact, stress makes pain worse, and increases risk of recurrence. 
  • Blood Pressure – those hormones when secreted into the blood stream cause blood pressure and heart rate to rise. By reducing the response of fight or flight, blood pressure can be better controlled.
  • Insomnia – again, the stress response primes us for worst-case scenarios, and sleep is inhibited when higher levels of stress hormones remain in the body.
  • Many Other Conditions – migraines, incidence of stroke, irritable bowel syndrome, and even cancer are all reported to occur less frequently when the body is regularly in a relaxed state. 

What Is Yoga?

Why is it, that in today’s world of many scientific and medical advancements, that we as a society are spiritually, mentally, and physically broken far beyond our predecessors? 

The answer to that question is extremely basic, yet very few understand it. It is because the world conditions us to a state of want, or attainment. That to be happy, one must have lots of physical possessions, or money. However, as most experience, that single thing that would make us complete seems just out of grasp, or one step away from you. 

Therefore, the cycle continues. When you eventually attain that one elusive thing, your wellbeing depends on the ‘one more’ thing right outside your grasp. And it never ends. The cycle of attainment for achieving happiness.

Moreover, this is what holds us back from happiness and wellbeing. The constant state of doing, as opposed to being fully aware of the present and what we are. If this is you, chances are you may be aware that you pour all your energies and actions outward to getting things and getting things done, as opposed to introspection.

This is where yoga comes in…

In simplest terms, yoga is the action of reversing your energy
and focus from outwards, towards the mind so that it can truly reflect
on what you are and not the illusion of attainment.

Yoga, on the deepest levels, literally means union; the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness. Yoga is a practice of postures, or asanas, physical representations of a much deeper art, which are profoundly beneficial to mental, emotional, and physical health.

So, what happens when you practice a deeply relaxing form of yoga?

You get profound pain relief.

Restorative Yoga For Chronic Pain

When you think of yoga, the likelihood that you associate it with enhanced wellbeing is high, since it has been proven to have significant benefits on many aspects of health and chronic pain is no different. 

Yoga has been used successfully to manage and help control the discomfort caused by chronic pain, and over time can help decrease the severity of symptoms.

The Mind Body Connection Of Pain

Chronic pain is a mind-body experience. It is a complex process, where it may feel like pain is living in your shoulder, back, or knee, but in fact, this is not really true. 

The fact is, to a large extent, chronic pain originates in the mind. Though the physical symptoms of the condition are undoubtedly real, it is the brain, which dictates perception of that pain, and how it is “felt.”

For example, there is a theory, which states that a previous experience of pain leaves us more vulnerable and sensitive to subsequent triggers of a similar nature. 

The good news is that since chronic pain has a significant connection to mental changes, you do not have to rely solely on prescription pain meds, surgeries, and therapy sessions for relief; training your mind can have a just as profound, if not stronger influence on relief of symptoms.

This is where restorative yoga can bring real relief from pain and greatly improve your quality of life.  In Yoga, the word Samsara is used to describe past experiences, which dictate our response to present situations, related to a medical term called neuroplasticity. 

Both of these words is easily summed up as the way our brain efficiently becomes more able to notice stimuli, in this case pain, and elicit a response faster, and more intensely. 

So, if in the past you experienced pain upon getting up out of a chair, your brain is now programmed to initiate pain responses every time you get up since it is not based on that painful experience, however…

Just As The Brain Can Be Programmed For Negativity…

 It Can Also Be Programmed For Relaxation And Restoration

Relaxation And Healing

Remember the relaxation response?

Restorative yoga helps transform chronic pain and stress responses in the mind and body to chronic healing responses to effectively manage pain. 

A relaxation pose that puts the body and mind at complete ease helps to bring about a natural sense of well-being and restorative yoga uses gentle poses with conscious breathing to turn on this healing relaxation response.

There are different poses that exert stronger relaxation forces on certain body parts than others, so it is important to utilize a variety of poses to achieve total body relaxation.

  • One of the major reasons this particular yoga art is so effective, is the fact that poses can be held for long periods of time, exceeding ten minutes if necessary to really bring the body to a complete state of calm. 
  • In addition, thanks to the use of props restorative positions can be easier achieved. 

Unlike other styles of yoga, where stretching is often a part of asanas, this particular discipline is completely relaxation based.

The key is to have a completely relaxed body, but an engaged mind while focusing on breathing. Once you have selected a pose to start with, focusing on breathing is the most important step. 

Imagining that certain parts of your body are breathing, and that tension and pain is being “dissolved” with every breath, really, works in relieving pent up negativity. 

Specific Poses Used In Restorative Yoga

The restorative aspect of yoga is useless if you don’t have the correct poses to accompany it. It is highly recommended to learn restorative yoga from a professional, whether in person or with an instructional DVD.

The perfect poses should not require any noticeable effort to stay stationary (force) or cause undue stretching, which is also tension. Here are a few examples of restorative poses to achieve a level of relaxation and restoration never before experienced.

Supported Backbend Position

This position works well to relieve tension in the neck and back region, as well as correcting poor posture that occurs as a result of sitting too much at a desk, or driving for long hours.

This position further helps allow the lungs to oxygenate deeper upon breathing in, and is referred to as the “challenge’ position; that is your willingness to embrace change and not let pain rob you of life’s joys.

To Perform:

• Sit on the ground, with knees slightly bent. Place a rolled mat or small pillows under the knees

• Next, place a rolled towel or pillow on the ground in the region of your upper-mid back, so that when you lay back it rests directly under your ribs, but not in the crease of your lower back

• Place a towel under your head for added support

• Arms are extended to the sides for comfort

Supported Bound Angle Position

This position is especially useful for relieving tension and pain in the shoulder, chest, and abdominal regions, which may be reflected as difficulty in breathing.

To Perform:

• Start by sitting upright, and placing two pillows- one under each knee

• Next, place a towel or pillow under your upper back, raised on a stack of books if necessary. Your lower back should not rest of the prop

• Place a pillow or folder towel under your head, at whatever height feels comfortable to you.

• Bring the soles of your feet together, so that when touching they form a diamond shape. You will feel your body open and relax as you inhale.

The Nesting Pose 

Sometimes referred to as the fetal position, it is one of the most common sleeping positions, making it an excellent pose to practice if you experience bouts of insomnia, or have difficulty sleeping in general.

To Perform:

• Lie on your side, legs drawn upwards.

• Place your head on a pillow, with another placed between your knees for comfort.

• An optional pillow or cushion may be placed at your back for additional support if necessary

• You may place your hands in whatever position feels best

• Trace each breath in and out, relaxing deeply with each exhalation

Although it may seem, as you are doing nothing in this position, profound relaxation typically follows.

Supported Forward Bend Pose

This pose is useful for relaxing hip flexors, as well as the spine from stresses of poor posture.

To Perform:

  • Sit upright on the ground, with legs crossed
  • Build a prop using books, pillows, or towel to approximately the level of your lower chest.
  • Lean forward and hug the prop, turning your head to whichever side feels comfortable
  • If you feel a stretch in your back or hips, raise the prop higher as this is undesirable for restorative yoga

Conclusion

Even though living with chronic pain is very difficult, it can be managed with proper exercise and lifestyle choices. Restorative yoga can have profound benefits in pain management and unlearning pain responses that may reduce the need for medication, physical therapy, or even surgeries.

Exercise, in conjunction with restorative yoga may have the most significant effect on symptom reduction and improving your overall quality of life. 

Be sure to get proper guidance from a qualified yoga instructor and clearance from your doctor before starting any exercise program.

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