It is only natural to want to prevent pain. When pain is felt, it has a negative impact on both our physical and mental state. We clench when we feel pain, tensing muscles and using other parts of our body to compensate for the painful area. Depression and hopelessness are often experienced by those with chronic pain.
The old saying, “It’s all in your head,” has taken on new meaning in medical research. The ancient Buddhist tradition of mindfulness, or concentrated attention on the moment without judgment, has shown promise in the field of pain management.
A study conducted by Harvard researchers and published in the journal Science suggests that we are happier when focused on what is happening in the moment than when our minds wander.
A Boston.com article on the subject, found at Boston.com, begins:
“Which activity leaves you feeling more content?
A. Checking items off your mental to-do list.
B. Watching soap suds swirl down the drain as you wash the dishes.
Correct answer: B.”
This means that we can alter our emotional state by observing what is happening before us and resisting the natural urge to speculate, ruminate or plan. For pain management specifically, this means that we can alter our experience of pain by paying attention to it. This may sound too easy, but mindfulness requires discipline and training. The human brain has evolved to plan for the future, which makes pure focus on the moment quite difficult. Taking a mindfulness approach to your pain is a commitment, but one that is well worth the effort.
Practicing mindfulness was shown by those Harvard researchers to decrease the size of the amygdala, the area of the brain that perceives stress and pain, while it increases the size of other areas responsible for memory, learning and emotional stability.
The above article sites the inspiring case of Tim Blackburn, whose chronic back pain led him to give up running for many years. After mindfulness training, Blackburn said, “I described my pain as I walked — how it went from my thigh to my knee to my shin — and it really helped me be present with the pain instead of clenching against it, thinking that it would never go away.’’ Tim progressed to jogging, and eventually returned to running with no pain.
Paying attention to pain as a simple phenomenon, rather than experiencing it as an unpleasant and hopeless situation, can lead you to identifying the sources thereof. It can also allow you to work through the pain; this is important, since keeping active is one of the best ways to avoid and resolve back pain.
Since pain is a mind and body problem, both factors must be addressed. Altering your mental state can have both physical and emotional effects, but mindfulness is most effective when coupled with physical efforts. Strength and flexibility are two main components of a healthy body. Exercise and stretching, then, are part of a prevention and recovery plan for back pain.
The muscles of the back, abdomen and pelvis make up the core group. These muscles should be developed in a balanced way, meaning that one set of the group is not weaker than another set. The core stabilizes the spine, holds it in proper alignment and helps it support the weight of the upper body. Unless you have debilitating pain, it is generally safe to exercise your core carefully. Start slow, and don’t move in ways that exacerbate your pain. Some pain is normal while stretching and exercising, especially at first when your tissues are not used to being worked and stretched. Use mindfulness to focus on your movements, breath and sensations.
For information on how to begin strength training and stretching workouts, see the many resources available at Exercise.About.com.
The body and mind are intimately connected by feelings of pain and pleasure, by stress and relief. When seeking to relieve your pain, you may see the most success by beginning with your mind, and allowing your new-found sense of focus to aide in your physical recovery.