Yoga May Change Chronic Pain’s Effect On Brain Gray Matter

Yoga's heart health benefits similar to that of walking
Yoga’s heart health benefits similar to that of walking
Imaging studies in multiple types of chronic pain patients show their brains differ from healthy control subjects.

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Yoga may be an important tool for preventing or even reversing the effects of chronic pain on the brain, according to a speaker at the American Pain Society’s annual meeting, held here today.

M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director, Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, explained in a plenary session address that many chronic pain patients show associated anxiety and depression as well as deficits in cognitive functions. 

“Chronic pain influences can influence anatomy and function of the brain, but lifestyle factors are important in preventing and reversing effects of pain on the brain,” Bushnell told the audience at the meeting.

She cited brain imaging studies that have been conducted in both rats and humans that have shown alterations in gray matter volume and white matter integrity in the brain, caused by the effects of chronic pain.

Bushnell said there is compelling evidence from studies conducted at NIH/NCCIH and other sites that mind-body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can counteract the brain anatomy affects of chronic pain.

“Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain,” said Bushnell.

She cited studies showing yoga practitioners have more gray matter than controls in multiple brain regions, including those involved in pain modulation.

“Some gray matter increases in yogis correspond to duration of yoga practice, which suggests there is a causative link between yoga and gray matter increases,” Bushnell noted.

Assessing the impact of brain anatomy on pain reduction, Bushnell said gray matter changes in the insula or internal structures of the cerebral cortex are most significant for pain tolerance.

“Insula gray matter size correlates with pain tolerance, and increases in insula gray matter can result from ongoing yoga practice,” said Bushnell.


  1. Bushnell C. Plenary Session. Presented at: APS 2015. March 13-16, 2015. Palm Springs, California.