How Meditation Can Be Used for Chronic Pain Relief

Painkillers. Pain patches. Anti-inflammatory drugs. Steroids. Acupuncture. Physical therapy. Heat. Cold. Surgery. Sound familiar? If you’ve tried all of these things for you chronic pain without success, and you haven’t considered mindful meditation for chronic pain relief, you should. This form of meditation is based on the principle that you control your pain.

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is different than acute pain, which is the sharp sense of pain you feel after injuring yourself. The sharp sensation is caused by nerves signaling tissue damage. Chronic pain is the perpetual pain over an extended period of time, and it is relentless. Chronic pain is also resistant to some forms of traditional treatment, and it is always difficult to eliminate the sensory pain when you have a chronic condition.

Meditation reduces the emotional response to pain. It distracts the mind. Chronic pain sufferers can learn to focus on their breathing and hone in on the changing pain sensations of their bodies that occur with each breath.

What The Research Says

For centuries, meditation has been documented as an effective pain control measure, but scientists have only recently begun to study meditation’s effect on the brain. One of the first studies of this kind was published in 2011 in the Journal of Neuroscience; 18 healthy subjects were recruited for the study.

None of them had ever meditated, so they were trained in mindful meditation techniques for 20 minutes a day for a four-day period. The technique they learned was focused attention, meaning they were taught to focus close attention on their breathing patterns and also to let go of distracting thoughts.
Functional MRI (fMRI) was used to measure brain activity; rather than a static image like in a traditional MRI, functional MRI is a dynamic measurement of brain activity over time. During the fMRI, subjects were asked to meditate. After a while, a heated device was placed on the calf of each participant for 12 seconds, then was removed. That process was repeated for five minutes.

The MRI results showed that most subjects were able to block the pain from the heat source and remain focused on their breathing. Pain intensity was reduced by 40 percent, and results of pain scale ratings showed a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. The fMRI showed that pain was reduced in key processing areas of the brain, and the greatest thing of all is that these subjects were beginners, new to meditation.

How Does Meditation Reduce Pain?

But exactly how does meditation affect the brain? Pain is usually described in components; there is an affective aspect and an evaluative aspect. Sensory thresholds for pain are also a factor.

Sensory pain is a raw physical pain. Affective pain is your emotional reaction to pain as well as your perception of the pain; it is a natural reaction to want to escape the unpleasantness. Certainly, sensory pain and affective pain are closely linked, but they are separate. A person can have a pain sensation, yet do not react to it. The evaluative aspect of pain refers to the cognitive aspect of pain, and this is where meditation comes in. Researchers think that higher cognitive measures can influence the other two aspects of pain. Meditation can help you train yourself to perceive the intensity and unpleasant aspects of pain much differently.

Pain medications work to reduce sensory input. Narcotics are the main treatment for chronic pain, but if that route is not for you, training yourself in mindful meditation, and training yourself to recognize all of your body’s cues (not just pain) can provide pain control.

Back Pain As One Example

Since 2011, more and more studies have been done to examine the effects of meditation on acute and chronic pain. In a longitudinal study of more than 1,300 Australian women, the subjects were asked about complementary medicine techniques they used to help with back pain. Nearly 15 percent of the women said that meditation was helpful for reducing their pain. Many back pain sufferers around the world turn to meditation to ease their symptoms.

Millions of people live with chronic pain. Nearly 15 percent of Americans are estimated to suffer from chronic pain. When this kind of pain persists day after day, it is life-altering. You miss work, you miss fun experiences and social outings, you likely get poor sleep, and the constant discomfort takes a toll on you physically and emotionally. We often hear about the high costs of other healthcare like diabetes or heart conditions, but authors of a Journal of Pain article estimated that chronic pain costs over $600 billion per year.

Research indicates that meditation activates brain areas that process pain, so it has the overall ability to reduce the intensity of pain. It also decreases stress which reduces pain. If you suffer chronic pain and haven’t given meditation a try, it’s time to check it out.

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