Relief Through Yoga in the Face of The Opioid Epidemic

I have walked the tightrope between pain management and opioid dependence—and survived. As helpful as this type of medication proved for my chronic pain and post-surgery recovery, I became quickly dependent, like so many others. Widespread addiction and overdose have come to define our nation’s opioid crisis, yet many of these tragedies began with the innocent pursuit of pain relief. Roughly 64,000 people died in 2016 of opioid overdose; a figure that nearly quadruples the already alarming overdose rates of 2015. As these numbers continue to climb, new research ushers in hope that yoga can help alleviate the symptoms of chronic pain and tame the addictive impulses associated with opioid dependence.

With more than one out of three Americans taking opiates, and about 38 percent of the population taking them through legitimately prescribed outlets, opioid use and abuse have become ubiquitous in recent years. According to a study led by Bradley Martin, professor of pharmaceutical evaluation and policy at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science, about one out of five patients who receive a 10-day opioid prescription become long-term users. With death tolls rising, our current opioid crisis has reached devastating proportions, underscoring the need for doctors and pain patients to find alternative pain relief interventions such as yoga.

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine conducted a study on 150 military veterans with chronic lower back pain. After completing a 12-week yoga program, the veterans cut back or totally eliminated their opioid pain medication. Yoga classes (with home practice) were led by a certified instructor twice weekly and consisted primarily of physical postures, movement, and breathing techniques. After the yoga program, the veterans scored far better on a disability questionnaire and pain level scores than those in the control group. The researchers noted that many of these veterans also reported a reduction in withdrawal side effects when they came off their medication.

When our bodies send messages to our brains that we are in pain, we seek relief. Yet, when relief comes to us with a bargain with the devil, (that is, the cruel dependence on a highly addictive drug) we may find ourselves crippling our path to lasting relief and recovery, as I did. Yet, an alternative response to pain is available to us if we welcome a shift in our natural brain chemistry. Yoga has the potential to help alleviate both the symptoms of chronic pain and addiction through a guided alteration in our perception of discomfort. In essence, we already have natural chemicals inside our bodies that we may call upon to help us through pain and addictive cravings; we just need a method to access them, for which the practice of yoga sets the stage.

Stanford University Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Roy King, PhD., M.D. has found correlations between yoga’s interactions with dopamine inhibitors in the brain and decreased addiction impulses. Additionally, he claims that breathing exercises in certain styles of yoga like Kundalini help restore the body’s healthy dopamine levels and replace cravings with natural pleasure-producing endorphins. In other words, some of the euphoria found in opioid medication may be replaced with the euphoria offered naturally through yoga.

My Personal Experience

A botched hip surgery in 2015 left me trapped in a landslide of chronic pain and an ongoing prescription to opioid pain medication. I am grateful to have had access to this medication, as it was essential to my well-being, yet I became too reliant on it. It was not until the resumption of my yoga practice that I was able to steer myself away from pain medication. Happily, I found my desire to use it diminished significantly and my ability to cope with my chronic pain heightened. Within the supportive, health-affirming environment of my yoga community, I began to reclaim my own natural abilities to heal and respond differently to pain. A new kind of euphoria enveloped me as I stretched into poses, endowing me with a renewed sense of self-reliance. Ultimately, the physiological self-knowledge that I gained through the practice spawned my true recovery.

Pain remains an inevitable human experience, yet yoga reminds us that we possess the ability to choose how we experience it and what we do about it. The tools we learn in yoga include our ability to calm our minds and bodies through stress triggers, including pain, as well as our ability to harness our reserve of agitation-relieving endorphins. On the other hand, dependence on opioid medication adheres quickly, and even two weeks on these medications lead to withdrawal symptoms. With short-acting opioids, symptoms begin within six to twelve hours after the last dose and include anxiety, a racing heart, sweating, and muscle aches. During the grueling withdrawal period, reaching for a magic pill that will not only stop the symptoms, but also ease the pain, often proves too tempting to resist. After all, we are only human. Yet, as humans, we also have choices. As time goes on and more research surfaces, the choice to interrupt a potential addiction with a yoga practice is one I hope more people will claim.

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