Unique Autonomic Responses to Pain in Yoga Practitioners

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Abstract

Objective

Autonomic nervous system activity is associated with neurobehavioral aspects of pain. Yogis use breathing, relaxation, and mindfulness to tolerate pain, which could influence autonomic responses. To evaluate how the link between autonomic responses and pain is altered by other factors, we compared perceptual and autonomic responses to pain between yogis and controls.

Methods

Nineteen yogis and 15 controls rated warm and painfully hot stimuli (1-cm2 thermode on calf), with visual anticipatory cues indicating certainly painful, certainly nonpainful, or uncertainly either painful or nonpainful. Heart rate, skin conductance, respiration, and blood pressure were measured.

Results

At baseline, yogis breathed slower and deeper than did controls, with no differences in other autonomic measures. During the task, perceptual ratings did not differ between groups in either the certain or uncertain conditions. Nevertheless, yogis had higher phasic skin conductance responses in anticipation of and response to all stimuli, but particularly during painful heat in uncertain contexts (uncertain: 0.46 [0.34] μS; certain: 0.37 [0.28] μS; t(18) = 3.962, p = .001). Furthermore, controls showed a decrease in heart rate to warm (−2.51 [2.17] beats/min) versus painful stimuli (0.83 [1.63] beats/min; t(13) = 5.212, p < .001) and lower respiratory sinus arrhythmia during pain compared with warm trials, whereas yogis had similar reactions to painful and nonpainful stimuli.

Conclusions

Autonomic responses to pain differed in yogis and healthy volunteers, despite similar pain ratings. Thus, autonomic reactivity to pain may be altered by environmental and psychological factors throughout an individual's life.

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