Welcome back to the yoga nidra extravaganza! So far we’ve talked about yoga nidra and mental health and yoga nidra in women’s health. The latter alluded to a potential role for yoga nidra in pain, as one of the problems investigated was painful periods, or dysmenorrhoea.
So, is there any evidence that yoga nidra can help to alleviate pain?
Why is pain a big deal?
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but chronic pain is one of the biggest sources of disability worldwide – 1 in 5 of us are likely to suffer from chronic pain (ie pain that lasts for more than 3 months), which can interfere with our sleep, our ability to exercise, work and socialise with our friends. Chronic pain takes a huge toll on our mental health and our quality of life. It also has a massive impact on the economy (a burden similar to cancer and cardiovascular disease).
Can yoga nidra help?
Bad news I’m afraid; the evidence this time is rather disappointing. Of the studies that I found, only two evaluated the impact of yoga nidra alone (ie not together with physical practice) in acute or chronic pain, and let’s just say it’s rather inconclusive:
- Yoga nidra helped to significantly reduce perceived pain in participants undergoing colonoscopy – but so did music, implying an effect through either a distraction, relaxation or both (although super-interested in the thought process that went into designing this study!)
- Yoga nidra (and specifically iRest) did not significantly improve pain among healthcare workers (although it did improve mindfulness)
What about when combined with physical practice?
- In a small qualitative study (ie one where impact was assessed by interviewing participants), participants with fibromyalgia reported some improvements in pain following a 6 week programme of asana-based practice, pranayama and yoga nidra
- Another study by the same group found significant reduction of pain after the 6 week programme, with more practice associated by higher improvements in pain
- A programme of asana-based practice, pranayama and yoga nidra led to significant improvements in persistent back pain after 1 month
As a side note, there is evidence that yoga overall can help with chronic pain and is in fact recommended by as a safe way to improve pain (although there is criticism that the evidence is either weak or inconsistent 1,2).
So whether it’s the physical practice or the relaxation and mindfulness that help with pain is unclear.
If it does help, how would that work?
Pain is obviously a very subjective thing. We each feel pain very differently, depending on our genetics, our emotional state of mind and the environment we are in.
It’s possible that by relaxing we release some tension and with it some pain.
It’s also possible that by improving our emotional state of mind we improve our perception of pain severity – the physicality of the pain doesn’t actually go away, we just change how we relate to it so it doesn’t feel as bad as we previously thought. By improving how we feel mentally, we change how we feel physically.