“Help! I have an autoimmune disease and movement is supposedly helpful yet painful.”
Two years ago I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and experienced severe pain throughout my body. If you live with chronic pain, you know how debilitating the constant discomfort can be on your body, energy level, and feelings of overall happiness. I experienced an endless cycle of pain followed by feelings of frustration and loss of hope when nothing seemed to relieve the pain. My physician recommended low impact movement such as swimming and gentle yoga. I experienced minor relief from swimming, but it was not enough. I turned to yoga as a means to get out and to get moving. With persistence in my yoga practice and diet, I eventually became pain and medicine free. While the journey was not always easy, I HIGHLY recommend yoga for anybody and especially those in pain.
Yoga for Pain Relief
Millions of people struggle with chronic pain. The number of those suffering with an autoimmune disease has significantly increased over the last decade, especially those diagnosed with arthritis and fibromyalgia. As a result, these people are turning to yoga therapy as an alternative therapy to relieve pain. Yoga therapy integrates breathing techniques and slow supported movements to help individuals facing health challenges manage their condition. Studies have supported a positive correlation with the physical and emotional effects of yoga and the overall increase in a feeling of well-being. The general long-term goals of yoga therapy include:
• Reducing the symptoms of suffering that can be reduced
• Managing the symptoms that cannot be reduced
• Rooting out causes wherever possible
• Improving life function, and
• Shifting attitude and perspective in relationship to life's challenges
Various studies have demonstrated the positive effects of yoga on the quality of life for those suffering with autoimmune diseases. James Carson, Ph.D. is a lead researcher and psychologist at the Oregon Health and Science University who published a study regarding yoga for pain relief in the Pain Journal. He concluded that a weekly yoga practice reduced symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and stiffness by 30% in patients suffering from chronic pain.
Reducing the Vicious Stress Cycle
Living in pain can be extremely stressful and stress exacerbates pain. This vicious cycle can begin to infiltrate your overall well being when stress begins to lower pain tolerance: Physical pain -> stress -> increased physical pain -> increased stress. When you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, your pain tolerance may be lower. The practice of yoga can shift the nervous system out of stress response and into the relaxation response. This is critical to people whose central nervous systems are sensitive and naturally elevated as a way to respond to pain.
Yoga for the Physical Body
Indeed a routine yoga practice can reduce stress levels, while the physical postures of yoga (i.e., asana) can help relieve pain in a number of ways. The practice of asana can be an effective way to relieve muscle tightness. In contrast to many other forms of exercise, yoga promotes both flexibility and strength in muscles. According to Timothy McCall M.D., “Asana can be very helpful in conditions such as back pain and degenerative arthritis, where poor anatomical alignment and dysfunctional movement patterns are usually contributing to the problem.” As you begin to engage muscles that aren't working properly, and relax ones that don't let go when they should, you can help bring bones into better alignment, relieving compression of joints and soft tissues.
Patients that are seeking yoga as an alternative therapy should consult their physician and then seek a gentle form such as restorative, yoga therapy, or yoga nidra. It is especially helpful to find a teacher who has worked with students in pain. There is a common misconception that one must bend and fold like a pretzel to participate. Indeed you could expect to find more challenging poses in advanced yoga classes; however, there are forms of yoga available to everyBODY. It is critical to establish a weekly practice, with an ultimate goal of attending three classes per week to experience optimal benefits. You may start with one class and then continue to build upon your practice as your body adjusts to the movement. It takes time and perseverance to maintain a commitment to movement, but you can do this. Showing up will become easier as you begin to experience the benefits.
Make it a healthy habit!
Hendrick, Bill. "Yoga Eases Fibromyalgia Pain." WebMD - Better Information. Better Health. N.p., 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.
McCall, Timothy. Yoga as Medicine : The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. New York: Bantam, 2007.
"Yoga for Arthritis - How Can Yoga Help You Deal with Arthritis." Yoga Info, News, Pictures, Forum, Shop, Travel and Community. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.