Claudia Micco, YogaFit Senior Mastertrainer
Can an ancient mind-body and exercise practice that combines movement, meditation, and breathing help our clients with chronic pain? Yes!
There is evidence that Yoga can be a helpful tool to cope with the day to day realities of chronic pain. Yoga, not unlike many exercise programs, places its emphasis on movements that stretch and strengthen muscles to create balance and symmetry for the spinal column. However, what sets yoga apart from other programs is that it places a strong emphasis on cognitive mental fitness and body awareness. This hidden benefit is especially helpful when it comes to assisting our clients with chronic pain.
What is Chronic Pain?
Also known as persistent pain, chronic pain lasts more than three months and is both difficult to diagnose and difficult to treat. Chronic pain can be mild or severe, intermittent or continuous, or a combination depending on the person. Sometimes beginning with an acute or sudden injury, chronic pain also involves social and psychological factors. Some of what we do know is that chronic pain is not necessarily an indicator of tissue damage. Chronic pain is a learned, maladaptive mind-body response that results in changes to both the physical body and the nervous system. The entire system becomes hypersensitized. The side effect is that the neurons in the tissues, the spinal cord, and in the brain change and can become more sensitive and/or reactive.
The mechanisms responsible for chronic pain are still poorly understood, but new research investigates the role of brain plasticity in the development of chronic pain. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the changes that happen in the brain and the nervous system because of chronic pain.
Working with students who are in pain can be challenging, and most of us trainers are dealing with clients who are looking for quick fixes. More often than not, the answer in our society is overwhelmingly narcotics and surgery. Those solutions may have their benefits, but in our profession, we need to find other strategies to help clients cope with the mental and physical repercussions of chronic pain.
If you’re skeptical that you can do anything to help your clients or that yoga could make a difference, it’s understandable. However, you don’t have to be able to put a foot over your head to benefit as media images often portray. Simple breath control exercises and meditation can help calm down the nervous system and give clients some control over their pain.
According to Yoga theory, this cognitive focus allows for clarity in the brain and an acute mental focus that can lead to higher levels of consciousness. It might sound unscientific, but studies show links between yoga practice and an increase in gray matter in the brain. Chronic pain is known to cause brain anatomy changes and impairments.
Yoga can be a tool for preventing or even reversing the effects of chronic pain on the brain. Chronic pain triggers changes in brain structure linked to anxiety, depression, and impaired cognitive functions. It’s a cycle that can be difficult for clients to move past. If you have a caring heart, patience, persistence, and simple mind-body practices in your toolbox, valuable coping results can be maintained.
When working with clients with chronic pain, we do not diagnose. However, an exact diagnosis is not necessary to work with chronic pain. In many cases, our clients come to us with MRIs and several diagnoses from one or more of their doctors. They’re looking for some relief and have often not had success with any of the treatments offered so far. Many of our clients are told their pain is incurable. In turn, they are told they
“have to learn to live with it.” That can be a tough thing to hear and even more difficult to navigate. If your clients have been physically active in their past, it can feel like a punch in the throat. It’s essential to be empathetic and understanding: helping our clients believe that their pain is changeable is just the beginning.
Exploration of mind-body practices such as Yoga, cognitive-based meditation, and breath control practices can help decrease the pain experience. We can offer our clients the tools and space to change their thought patterns and behaviors related to the pain. A direct understanding of their mind throughout pain cycles will help them to deal with pain more effectively.
If you’re interested in learning more about Yoga or chronic pain, come to our course Yogafit for Chronic Pain with Fit Singapore. We will be delving deeply into both science and practice related to chronic pain. We’ll explore and practice helpful and straightforward methods that you can incorporate not only into your fitness training sessions but into your own life.
Institute of Medicine (IOM). 2011. Relieving Pain in America, A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research. Washington D.C. The National Academies Press. http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13172&page=1.https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus16.pdf
Global Industry Analysts Report 2011: http://www.prweb.com/pdfdownload/8052240.pdfAmerican Academy of Pain Medicine: Facts on pain. http://www.painmed.org/patientcenter/facts_on_pain.aspx
YogaFit For Chronic Pain Kristy Manuel, MS, C-IAYT, ERYT-500, ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist, ACE-PT Director
YogaFit for HealthCare Updated May 2019; Appendix updated March 2019
Claudia has served as a Senior Trainer and content provider for YogaFit Inc. since 2000. She holds her ERYT 500 through both the Yoga Alliance of USA and Australia and is ACE-certified. With over 30 years in the spa and fitness industry, Claudia is a leading expert in this field, travelling extensively through Europe, Australia and the US, training fitness instructors in yoga, mind/body fitness, holistic health and active aging.