Yoga Helps Vets With Brain Injury

Veterans who suffer concussive brain injuries find relief from a Department of Defense supported program that includes yoga.
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Veterans who suffer concussive brain injuries find relief from a Department of Defense supported program that includes yoga.

Soldiers come home from war with a whole range of complex injuries, but one of the most common injuries for a soldier to sustain on the battlefield is a concussion. That’s what the majority of the soldiers at the Traumatic Brain Injury clinic at Augusta, Georgia’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center Neuroscience and Rehabilitation Center are being treated for, says program director Dr. John Rigg. And yoga is part of their treatment.

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Most people who experience a concussion—a traumatic brain injury that is caused by a blow to the head or body, a fall, or another injury that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull—do so from a fall or from doing some type of sport, and those post-concussive symptoms—which include mood issues, memory loss, sleeplessness and headaches—generally resolve themselves within a few days or months, at most, says Rigg. But soldiers are often dealing with the after-effects of multiple concussive injuries, and their symptoms are entangled with post-traumatic stress, which makes them harder to resolve.

“The soldiers sustain concussions during blasts, in moments when someone is trying to kill them,” says Rigg, who adds that while their prefrontal cortex knows they are no longer in immediate danger, their amigdylas, or animal brains, think they are still in war. This creates a feedback loop in which they continue to be on high alert at all times, and the concussion symptoms keep occurring.

To help treat post-concussive symptoms, the clinic has instituted a three-week-long functional recovery outpatient program that incorporates mind-body medicine, and includes a yoga class once a week taught by Kripalu-trained yoga instructor Jim O’Leary.

“The stress reduction [offered by the yoga] can improve post-concussive symptoms, lowering the headaches and improving sleep and mood, all of which also have a positive effect on their memory,” says Rigg, adding that those who receive the most benefit are those who continue to practice yoga after the three weeks end.

The class is a flow class that ends in 7 minutes of deep relaxation. The aim is to challenge the soldiers enough to keep them interested, but to also introduce them to the aspects of the practice that will help them to relax.

“These are guys who can’t sleep at night because they are so highly aroused,” says Rigg. “They come out of the deep relaxation and say, ‘That was awesome. I wish I could sleep like that at night.’” Rigg tells them that they could—if they keep practicing yoga.

“We have hundreds of thousands of concussion patients, and they’re often not responding to medications. The medications also have significant side effects," says Riggs. "We are encouraged to use complimentary medicine. The Department of Defense has really embraced this stuff on a very official level.”