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Breathe, Stretch Your Way to Pain Relief

For Veterans, yoga offers multiple health benefits

Yoga class at the VA in San Diego showing two instructors

If chronic pain has you down, give yourself a lift - with yoga. Research increasingly shows yoga may be an effective prescription for pain relief.

Physical activity, in general, is the best thing you can do to break the cycle of chronic pain, according to Dr. Donna Ames, a psychiatrist with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Pain causes you to favor the parts of your body that hurt by becoming inactive, adopting unnatural positions - such as stooping over to one side - or overusing other parts of your body.

Yoga may help relieve chronic pain not only through movement, but also through deep breathing and meditation, which reduce stress and help take your mind off your pain. Stress can make pain worse by lowering your tolerance to it and by increasing cortisol, a body chemical that causes inflammation, or swelling and redness.

A person in pain becomes anxious and begins breathing too quickly, explained Ames. Rapid breathing can build up acid in your muscles that can make your anxiety and pain worse. By learning to breathe more deeply and slowly, you can calm yourself and break the cycle of increasing anxiety and pain.

What is yoga anyway?

Yoga is a mind and body practice that combines performing different postures with breathing and relaxation techniques. Millions of people across the United States practice yoga in health clubs, yoga studios, recreation centers and a growing number of VA Medical Centers (VAMC). Yoga helps you focus on the present, rather than the past or future. Those who practice yoga on a regular basis may enjoy:

  • Less stress and anxiety

  • Less back pain and pain in general

  • Improved sleep

  • Better heart health

  • Lower cholesterol and blood pressure

  • Increased balance, flexibility and strength

Because there are many different kinds of yoga, you should talk with your health care team and a yoga instructor before starting a class. Some forms of yoga are more physically demanding, while others focus more on relaxing.

Just as everyone's pain is different, so is treatment. "One type of yoga program might help one Veteran but not another," said Ames. For instance, some yoga moves, such as back bends or head stands, can be very dangerous for Veterans with certain spinal or eye problems. A yoga practice can be tailored to your individual needs and body, according to Ames. Yoga can even be done seated.

Your VA health team can help you choose the best treatment plan for your pain based on your health history, type of pain and personal needs. Use My HealtheVet's pain journal to track and record your pain level and share this information with your care team.

Less pain, more sleep

Operation Desert Storm Marine Corps Veteran Matt Crowder walked into his first yoga class in 1997, when he moved to California. Chronic low-back pain kept him from running, and swimming and walking didn't help. "Before I found yoga, I often had trouble sleeping soundly through the night," said Crowder. "Each yoga class gave me more confidence that I would eventually feel better."

Not only is Crowder still doing yoga, he teaches classes both at a private yoga studio and as a volunteer at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. Though his days are not pain-free, he said yoga "provides pretty effective pain management."

Volunteer Joyce Smith showing a yoga pose at the Memphis VA

For Crowder, the best part of yoga has been the "cumulative effect" of stretching. "I never learned how to stretch," he said, "and I didn't know how to exercise safely with my [back] condition."

While he teaches a gentler form of yoga at the VAMC, the power yoga class Crowder leads at the studio keeps him motivated to keep practicing and learning. Deep breathing is what helps him move through his day safely and calmly. Some pleasant bonuses of his yoga practice are less stress and better sleep, which Crowder said result from less pain and more physical activity.

Five things to know about yoga

  • Some VAMCs offer free yoga classes to Veterans. Your health care team or VAMC patient advocate can help you find a suitable class

  • Some Veterans use yoga to help their Posttraumatic Stress Disorder because it can improve sleep and help relieve stress, anxiety and depression

  • A yoga class can provide a social outlet and chance to connect with other Veterans

  • Not all instructors are trained alike - there is a wide range of training programs. Make sure you choose a qualified yoga instructor with the proper experience and credentials

  • Yoga practice is very individual. Just because the Veteran next to you can hold a pose all day doesn't mean you should. Listen to your body and go at your own pace.

If you have chronic pain, why not give yoga a try? Pain might be the only thing you have to lose.

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