Written by Nikita Burke, PhD
What is yoga?
Yoga is a thousands-of-years-old physical, mental, and spiritual practice that is beneficial for many disorders of the nervous system. It is not just bending into seemingly impossible poses. The practice of yoga is composed of asana (the poses), meditation and deep breathing, which combine to help reduce stress. It is a low impact, strength-building and relaxing exercise. Many poses can be modified for different levels of strength and flexibility, and may help relieve the distressing symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.
What is the scientific evidence?
Numerous published studies show that yoga can significantly improve neuropathy symptoms and quality of life– reducing pain by 25%; fatigue by 31% and depression by 44%. In a group of individuals with diabetic neuropathy, 40 days of yoga improved nerve conduction and blood glucose levels, whereas these parameters continued to deteriorate in the control group. Also, eight weeks of yoga decreased pain and improved grip strength in people with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, when compared to control subjects.
How does yoga help?
Yoga allows us to relax the mind and body in spite of uncomfortable sensations, such as pain. Resilience is increased by regularly tending to the mind. Deep breathing increases energy, brings a sense of well-being and peace of mind. When practiced frequently, yoga promotes relaxation by reducing stress and helping acceptance of neuropathy. Deep breathing can help deal with waves of pain, and also helps reduce the emotional or unpleasant quality of pain. Yoga also helps connect the mind and the body – listening to the signals your body provides will help you to honor where your body is at that moment in time. By tuning into your body, you can learn how you hold yourself and improve your posture mindfully. The skills you learn on the mat can become a habit, so that it is easier to relax in your day-to-day life. These skills help you to be aware of what your abilities are, when you can push through, what triggers an episode and how you can manage symptoms of neuropathy.
How does yoga work?
Your peripheral nervous system consists of the nerves that transmit information between your brain and spinal cord and your body. Yoga can help to increase the communication between your nerve cells, spinal cord and brain. In this way, yoga is believed to strengthen the pathways between the nerves and brain, managing symptoms and even reducing progression.
Neuroplasticity refers to our nervous system’s ability to rewire itself. This allows our brains to compensate for injury and disease and our neurons to adjust their activities in response to new situations. For example, with regular yoga practice, repetition of a posture results in greater neural connections in the brain area associated with that body part.
In fact, yogi’s have more than double the pain tolerance of controls and more gray matter in their brain!
Try it for yourself
Yoga, as a complementary activity in combination with medical treatment, may help improve your neuropathy, pain and quality of life. Always talk with your doctor before trying a new therapy. You may try some gentle yoga classes for free online with Yoga With Adriene (youtube.com/yogawithadriene) or join one of the many classes available in Calgary. These classes range from strengthening classes, to gentle Hatha yoga, to restorative classes with supported relaxing poses. Even a few minutes most days each week will help reduce stress and thus improve pain.
About the author
Nikita Burke PhD, is a researcher examining the mechanisms of chronic pain at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary. She received her doctorate in neuroscience at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where she examined the role of the immune system in the link between depression and chronic pain.
Garfinkel, M. S., A. Singhal, W. A. Katz, D. A. Allan, R. Reshetar and H. R. Schumacher, Jr. (1998). "Yoga-based intervention for carpal tunnel syndrome: a randomized trial." JAMA 280(18): 1601-1603. Head, K. A. (2006). "Peripheral neuropathy: pathogenic mechanisms and alternative therapies." Altern Med Rev 11(4): 294-329. Malhotra, V., S. Singh, O. P. Tandon, S. V. Madhu, A. Prasad and S. B. Sharma (2002). "Effect of Yoga asanas on nerve conduction in type 2 diabetes." Indian J Physiol Pharmacol 46(3): 298-306. Monro, R., A. K. Bhardwaj, R. K. Gupta, S. Telles, B. Allen and P. Little (2015). "Disc extrusions and bulges in nonspecific low back pain and sciatica: Exploratory randomised controlled trial comparing yoga therapy and normal medical treatment." J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil 28(2): 383-392. Villemure, C., M. Ceko, V. A. Cotton and M. C. Bushnell (2014). "Insular cortex mediates increased pain tolerance in yoga practitioners." Cereb Cortex 24(10): 2732-2740.