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Yoga, Chronic Pain Have Opposite Effects on Gray Matter

Yoga, Chronic Pain Have Opposite Effects on Gray Matter

Chronic pain is known to cause brain anatomy abnormalities, but yoga can be a successful tool in the prevention or even the reversing of these effects on the brain, according to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) official speaking at the American Pain Society’s annual meeting.

“Imaging studies in multiple types of chronic pain patients show their brains differ from healthy control subjects,” said M. Catherine Bushnell, Ph.D., scientific director, Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

“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.”

She explained in a meeting that many chronic pain patients manifest anxiety and depression as well as deficits in cognitive functions. Furthermore, 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.

The brain’s gray matter is located in the cerebral cortex and subcortical areas. The impact of gray matter loss depends on where it occurs in the brain, but some symptoms include memory impairment, emotional problems, and decreased cognitive functioning.

Bushnell notes there is 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 effects of chronic pain.

“Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain,” said Bushnell.

She adds that studies have shown that yoga practitioners have more gray matter than controls in multiple brain regions, including those involved in pain modulation.

“Some gray matter increases in yogis correspond to duration of yoga practice, which suggests there is a causative link between yoga and gray matter increases,” Bushnell noted.

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

“Brain anatomy changes may contribute to mood disorders and other affective and cognitive comorbidities of chronic pain. 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,” Bushnell added.

Source: American Pain Society


Yoga, Chronic Pain Have Opposite Effects on Gray Matter

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Yoga, Chronic Pain Have Opposite Effects on Gray Matter. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 16 May 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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