Written by Tori Arca 

Yoga for chronic pain

10/05/2016 7:55:26 AM | 0 comments |
Regular exercise is important for all of us, but for individuals with chronic pain, exercise becomes essential. Studies show that exercise lowers pain levels, improves body function and elevates mood levels.

For someone living with chronic pain who is struggling to get through daily activities, starting an exercise program can seem daunting. It’s important to start slow and be patient.

Understanding chronic pain

The brain plays a large role in how we experience and cope with pain. Changes occur in our brain and nervous system when a person develops chronic pain.

Like an overactive car alarm that goes off even though no one is breaking into the car, messages are being sent to the brain over and over again even though the body is not in danger. This causes a pain experience response to happen when it shouldn’t be. The brain becomes so focused on the pain that one can no longer tell where it hurts, rather the whole body is in pain.

Pain, yoga and the brain

Yoga is a great form of exercise for people with chronic pain because it exercises both the mind and body. It focuses on gentle movements that send positive messages to the brain and help it to learn that not all movement is painful.  This positive connection between mind and body is key to managing pain.

Yoga also focuses on breathing.  People are often shocked by how often they hold their breath and are not aware they are doing it.  Breath control and breathing exercises are skills that can be used daily to lower anxiety and stress, which are known to increase pain. 

Getting started

  • Start slow and set realistic goals. Patients often tell me “I should be able to” or “I use to do more than this and be fine”.  Letting go of these expectations and setting a realistic goal is the first step.  Your initial tolerance with these activities may be very small and that’s okay.  The key is to build a strong foundation.
  • Pace yourself.  Check-in with your body every few poses to determine what you can manage today.  Take breaks as often as you need to. The pressures of being in a group exercise class can often lead to overdoing it.  It may take some pressure off if you speak to the instructor beforehand about your chronic pain.
  • Adapt an exercise. All poses can be done in a sitting or standing position.  Choose the position that works best for you. If a pose still causes flare-ups after modifications, consider a different one.
  • Be patient. You will have good days and bad days.  Create a ‘good day’ plan and a ‘bad day’ plan with your program.
  • Hurt doesn’t mean new harm.  If your pain flares up, it does not necessarily mean you have caused new harm to your body.  Simply, your pain response system has become hyper-responsive and overactive as a result of your chronic pain condition. Take a step back and modify.


This article was originally published in the Healthier You Fall 2016 magazine. Check out the issue here (best viewed in a Google Chrome or Firefox browser) or download the PDF magazine


Registered Physiotherapist
Tori is a registered physiotherapist at Surrey Memorial Hospital and Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre.
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