Yoga and Chronic Pain

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by Alison Kavanaugh, PT Student


What is chronic pain?

By definition chronic pain is pain that lasts 3 months or longer. It affects ∼15% of adolescents and 20% of adults in Canada (1). Chronic pain can result from a known cause, such as surgery or inflammed joints, or as a consequence of a disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. However, often the cause is unknown. Because chronic pain is complex and multi-dimensional it can be difficult to treat.

Neuropathic pain is often associated with chronic pain, meaning that the pain they experience is not in proportion to actual tissue damage or injury. Instead, the pain results from changes in how the nervous system processes sensation. For example, nerves in a muscle may send messages to the brain that exaggerate a sensation, making it feel very painful when there is no actual tissue damage.

Can practicing yoga ease chronic pain?

Chronic pain is multi-dimensional, it negatively influences tension in the muscles, patterns of breathing, energy levels and mindset, all of which exacerbate distress and affect the quality of life of the individual. (2)
Yoga is also multi-dimensional. It can influence all aspects of the person; physical, mental, emotional and breath. The asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breathing) balance the physiological system and can initiate a relaxation response. This response consists of decreased metabolism, deeper breathing, stable blood pressure, reduced muscle tension, lower heart rate and slow brain wave pattern. The combination of meditation, pranayama and asana, can help individuals deal with the emotional aspects of chronic pain, reducing anxiety and depression effectively and improve the quality of life. (2)

Research shows that yoga can ease the symptoms associated with chronic conditions such as cancer pain, neuropathic pain, knee pain, back pain, fibromyalgia and migraine among many other conditions (2).
For example, a randomized controlled trial by Tekur et al (2008) compared the effect of a 7-day intensive yoga program with physical exercise on pain and spinal flexibility in 80 subjects with chronic low-back pain. The results showed a significant reduction in pain levels in the yoga group compared to the control group, and spinal flexibility measures improved significantly in both groups but the yoga group had greater improvement as compared to controls. (3)

Yoga has also demonstrated a significant reduction in migraine headache symptoms. A randomized controlled trial by John et al 2007, assigned 72 patients with migraine to a yoga therapy or self-care group for 3 months. The results showed that headache intensity, frequency, pain levels, anxiety and depression, and symptomatic medication use were significantly lower in the yoga group compared to the self-care group. (4)

The evidence to support the use of yoga to manage chronic pain is positive. As a multi-dimension mind-body system, the practice of yoga offers many tools needed to cope with the complexities of chronic pain including reducing stress, releasing muscular tension, coping with difficult emotions and training the mind to be less reactive to painful sensations.


Alison Kavanaugh

Alison is a soon-to-be graduate of Dalhousie’s MSC Physiotherapy program. She is currently completing her final physiotherapy clinical placement at Therapeutic Approach Health Centre under the guidance of Michael Munro, PT and Yoga Educator.

Alison has gained experience as a physiotherapy student in a busy orthopedic clinic as well as in the IWK Children's hospital perinatal center and chronic pain department. As a result, she has had the opportunity to treat a wide range of acute and chronic conditions, including various musculoskeletal injuries and neurological impairments in all ages.

Alison is mid-way through completing her 200-hour yoga teacher training at Therapeutic Approach Yoga Studio and has been a dedicated student of yoga for many years. 

She is a strong advocate of a movement-based approach to physiotherapy and believes that exercise (including yoga!) and education can offer the most effective strategy for wellness and recovery.



(1) Schopflocher, D., Taenzer, P., & Jovey, R. (2011). The prevalence of chronic pain in Canada. Pain Research & Management: The Journal of the Canadian Pain Society, 16(6), 445.
(2) Vallath, N. (2010). Perspectives on Yoga inputs in the management of chronic pain. Indian journal of palliative care, 16(1), 1.
(3) Tekur, P., Singphow, C., Nagendra, H. R., & Raghuram, N. (2008). Effect of short-term intensive yoga program on pain, functional disability and spinal flexibility in chronic low back pain: a randomized control study. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 14(6), 637-644.
(4) John, P. J., Sharma, N., Sharma, C. M., & Kankane, A. (2007). Effectiveness of yoga therapy in the treatment of migraine without aura: a randomized controlled trial. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 47(5), 654-661.