Growing interest in natural forms of therapy have turned many researchers and patients toward relaxation training such as meditation for chronic pain management. The idea is simple: If we gain control of our emotional and psychological responses to pain, we may suffer less both physically and mentally.
Mindfulness meditation is of particular interest in pain management. Mindfulness, an important tenet of Bhuddism, teaches us to be fully aware of and present in the moment. During a mindfulness meditation session, you observe what is going on without immediate reaction. For the patient, it’s an attempt to notice and acknowledge pain without reacting to it with fear, sadness or anxiety. Given the connection between mind and body, such reactions can actually lead to worsened physical pain.
Researchers have begun testing the efficacy of mindfulness meditation for those with pain. One study included 51 patients with various conditions, including chronic back pain and headache, who participated in a 10-week mindfulness meditation program. The researchers theorized that meditation would affect an “’uncoupling’ of the sensory dimension of the pain experience from the affective/evaluative alarm reaction and reduce the experience of suffering via cognitive reappraisal.” After the 10-week period, 50% of participants showed greater than or equal to 50% pain reduction, and an additional 15% of participants experienced between 33% and 50% pain reduction. Those who experienced significant pain reduction also showed mood and psychiatric symptom improvement. See more on the study at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
Mindfulness meditation may also affect positive changes in sleep quality and overall quality of life. A small study of 27 chronic lower back pain patients over the age of 65 analyzed participants’ diaries after an 8-week mindfulness program. Their diaries attested to marked improvements in attention, sleep quality, mood elevation and pain reduction. See more on this at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
The effects of meditation are meant to last beyond the session. Patients in the above study, for example, were more attuned to their bodies in general; this allowed them to make adjustments to posture and mechanics to eliminate unnecessary strain. Cultivating awareness of your body can lead to constructive behavioral changes that reduce your pain around the clock, not just when meditating.
Relaxation programs like meditation may be a valuable resource for pain patients, for whom conventional forms of treatment often fall short. There is no risk to meditation, and there doesn’t even need to be a cost. Though some may prefer to seek out classes and training from a professional, there are free resources online that can help you cultivate the skill of mindfulness at home. See marc.ucla.edu for audio instructions for learning the basics of mindfulness as well as specific meditations.
Mindfulness meditation is a way to turn down the mental chatter that distracts us from our works and worsens pain and discomfort by creating anxiety. Remember that the mind and body are connected, and that the mind can be employed to help reduce pain.