Can Yoga Help Manage Sickle Cell Pain?
Last updated: May 2022
The pain of sickle cell disease can be felt in both the body and the mind. Not only do people with sickle cell experience physical discomfort, but they also have the mental discomfort of wondering when the pain will stop... and when it could start again. Because of this, it makes sense that researchers are looking at yoga as a treatment to ease sickle cell pain.1
What is yoga and how can it help?
Yoga is a type of mindfulness exercise. It connects the mind and the body using a series of gentle movements. There are many different types of yoga, and a yoga practice can be as calm or energetic as you want. It can even be done in a chair.
The American Society of Hematology, an organization of doctors who treat sickle cell disease, recognizes that medicine alone is not always enough to relieve sickle cell pain. They recommended yoga, among other complementary treatments like acupuncture, meditation, and spirituality, as having the potential to “ease pain and reduce the need for opioids” in people with sickle cell disease. Specifically, yoga can help to reduce pain intensity and reduce the need for pain medicine.1
The mind-body connection
Chronic sickle cell pain can be challenging to manage because it affects people both physically and mentally. Enduring long-term pain can make it hard to stop thinking of the pain. It can also lead to feelings of helplessness. This, in turn, can lead people to feel more pain and use more medicine.2
Here is where yoga can help: Mindfulness exercises help people take control of their thoughts and focus on the present – what is happening here and now. It can be as simple as taking a moment to focus your thinking on your breath. Some people find it helpful to repeat a single word or phrase (this is sometimes called a mantra), such as, “I am calm.”1,2
Studies of people with sickle cell disease show that focusing your mind away from your pain can actually lessen the pain felt in the body. It can also help you stay grounded in the present moment, so you think less about the pain that could happen in the future.2,3
Yoga is not just for adults, either. A study of kids hospitalized with sickle cell disease showed that doing yoga reduced their pain after just 1 session.2,3
These effects can add up to an increased quality of life for people of all ages with sickle cell disease.2,3
Taking your mind off the pain
Adopting a mindfulness practice like yoga or meditation does not mean you have to do it for hours a day, every day. A weekly class might be enough to ease everyday pain and teach you techniques you can use during acute episodes.2
A recent study of adults with chronic pain from sickle cell disease compared people who took mindfulness classes once a week for 6 weeks to people who did not. By the end of 6 weeks, the people who took the mindfulness classes reported that they were better able to manage pain compared to those who did not take the classes.2
One study participant said, “I think that it changed my perspective, because a lot of times when I am in pain I am totally focused on that pain, so this helped me do exercises where I am not just focused on my pain.”2
Along with helping people manage chronic pain, mindfulness helped them stay calm through severe pain episodes.
As another study participant said: “I have noticed that when I have spikes of pain, when it gets worse, being able to kind of sit down and calm myself and meditate has been helpful...Being able to have tools that will keep my mind strong helps me tolerate and deal with the pain.”2
Start your own mindfulness practice
Sickle cell pain management is not one-size-fits-all. If medicine alone is not helping, mindfulness exercises you can practice at home, such as yoga, can help you regain your quality of life.1,2
Ready to try mindfulness? Ask your doctor to suggest a class. You can also search for one online. Meditation, yoga, and tai chi can be done alone or in a group. Sometimes it is helpful to have a guide or teacher to help you focus. If you are unable to leave the house or be in a group setting, you can use online classes or recorded sessions. These are often available on the internet for free.
Are you interested in connecting with other sickle cell warriors?