Rebecca Powell-Doherty, PhD discusses the possibility of using yoga to shorten wound healing time, the science behind it, and whether it’s possible.
Does Yoga Improve Recovery and Shorten Wound Healing Time?
I’ve previously written on the general benefit of yoga and breath work to manage stress and boost immunity. The scientific literature certainly supports this overall idea, and it is outlined beautifully in the context of weight management and an overall healthy lifestyle in the recently published book by Tiffany Cruikshank, Meditate Your Weight. In this article, I want to continue to probe deeply and see if the science supports the idea that it could be possible to use yoga to shorten wound recover time following trauma.
First, consider the notion of wound healing from a clinical, or patient, perspective. Once injured, and this could be anything from a splinter to a bed sore to a bone fracture, the overall process of repair and restoration is generally the same. The first phase of healing works to close off any damaged blood vessels and ensure bleeding stops through the formation of clots. Then, as anyone who has had a splinter or sprained an ankle can attest, inflammation sets in.
This is the phase where the site of injury starts to swell and grows warm to the touch. We talk often in the yoga community about how chronic inflammation in the body is damaging, and it is, but in this case, the acute inflammatory response by the innate immune system is working on our behalf to eliminate cell and tissue debris, along with any bacteria or other invaders who may have accessed our bodies through the wound site.
Following the inflammatory phase, we move into the portion of the process where the debris has been cleared away, and now the tissue structure can be rebuilt. This usually includes collagen deposition (which serves as something of a scaffold for the layers of skin to build and regenerate), regeneration or replacement of damaged blood vessels, and superficial, or dermal, wound closure. In the case of small injuries, this is the phase where most people would claim they’re back to normal and fully ‘healed’. Of course, the larger the injury, the longer the process takes. Finally, we move through the phase where tissue regeneration is completed at a deeper level and the strength of the tissues, ligaments, and muscles that may have been damaged is, at least in part, restored (Wound Care Canada (2011), 9(2): 4-12).
As you can likely imagine (and have undoubtedly experienced on some level), this process takes time, anywhere from a month to two years in more severe cases! So, its no wonder we’d all like to do things that speed the process a bit! The question is, is yoga one of those things?
Support: Pain Management
The science says its certainly possible! There are multiple indications in the literature that point to improved wound healing for a variety of initial injuries when patients are ‘treated’ with some form of yoga therapy. One of the most powerful studies, the gold standard randomized control trial, looked at 30 patients with fairly simple ‘long bone’ fractures (typically bones of the arm or leg). All patients received equivalent treatment, with the exception of the group of 15 who practiced yoga based principles of breath, relaxation, and visualization twice a day for 30 minutes each session.
The study assessed the two groups on the first day and again after 21 days. 21 days is generally accepted as the minimum time for wound healing to take place. The study compared the two based on the assessment of pain, tenderness at the fracture site, swelling, and bone density. In all cases, the group practicing the yogic breathing techniques showed dramatic improvement over the group that did not (The J of Alt and Comp Med (2011),17 (3): 253-258).
Support: Physical Recovery
A second study, even more exciting than the first, points to the use of yoga as beneficial for both self-reported outcomes such as pain or stress and physical and physiological parameters of improvement. Also a randomized control trial, the study explored the effects of yoga on women with stage II and III operable breast cancer pre- and post-operatively. The yoga group practiced regulated nostril breathing and relaxation techniques, while the ‘control’ group received supportive counselling sessions focused on social support and shoulder exercises for rehab. Both groups received their respective treatments during their time in the hospital following surgery, and each group continued the assigned treatment for 30 minutes each day for three weeks following discharge.
When the groups were compared, significant differences were seen in the duration of hospital stay following surgery, the time required to remove the drain that is placed during surgery, and the time to suture removal. In all cases, the yoga group fared much better, reaching these milestones often in half the time as the control group. In addition, the study showed indicators of systemic inflammation (common in cancer patients, particularly post-op) were significantly decreased in the yoga group, thereby providing measurable, concrete biological evidence for the effects of yoga on healing (Int J Yoga (2008), 1(1): 33-41).
So what does all this mean? Well, we don’t yet fully know the details of how, but we know that simple yogic breathing practices are, in multiple cases, scientifically demonstrated to be beneficial for healing and recovery. As we have concluded in other studies and articles, there’s no fancy asana required. Just some simple pranayama practices and you’re on your way.