Some cultures claim that meditation can promote well-being through strengthening a person’s mind. However, this isn’t something that is widely accepted in the Western world as medically beneficial. If you ask around, many people will regale you with imagery from monks isolated on high stony peaks to their experiences in the local yoga studio. This wide range paints an interesting picture about the practice of meditation, but not a very clear one. But, for chronic pain patients the important question is, does meditation work and can you use meditation for pain relief?
Does meditation for pain relief work?
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ~Hanh Nhat Thich~
Meditation can come in many different forms, but the most common and effective type is called mindful meditation. This style helps center a person’s attention on breathing and controlling thoughts in the present moment. It is about being still and quiet, allowing thoughts to come and go while you focus on the in and out of your own breath. It sounds simple, but our daily lives are constantly filled with stress and worries, so quieting your mind can be quite the challenge.
Chronic pain patients, unfortunately, understand all too well the burdens stress and pain can have on the mind. Chronic pain is a serious issue in the U.S. and according to the Institute of Medicine, approximately 100 million people in the U.S. suffer from some chronic pain condition. Meditation has the power to give these patients the ability to identify their pain and find some relief.
A breakout study conducted by the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center showed that meditation reduced pain ratings of patients by 24% versus the baseline measurement. This is even more astounding as the experiment proved that meditation does not use the endogenous opioid system in the human body, which means it does not affect the same neural pathways as pharmaceutical treatments like painkillers.
Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy stated:
“This study adds to the growing body of evidence that something unique is happening with how meditation reduces pain. These findings are especially significant to those who have built up a tolerance to opiate-based drugs and are looking for a non-addictive way to reduce their pain.”
Researchers from the University of North Carolina also found that even inexperienced meditators experienced a dampened pain response after practicing for only three days. Although a number of studies have uncovered similar conclusions, scientists still aren’t sure how or why meditation works the way it does.
Stress reduction benefits
A study from the University of California, Los Angeles found that meditators’ brains experience less age-related erosion of gray matter, potentially reducing the risk for mental illness and diseases affecting cognition.
Meditation helps patients feel less pain, although researchers aren’t sure how.
Some researchers believe meditation’s ability to reduce pain is closely tied with its stress reduction benefits, according to The Atlantic. Stress activates the body’s inflammatory response, often increasing the sensation of pain. If meditation gives people peace of mind, their bodies naturally have less inflammation and fewer chemical processes creating the pain sensation to begin with.
Meditation for pain relief can even help you sleep
A study conducted by JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that mindful awareness practices (MAP) resulted in immediate improvements in the sleep quality of the participants. MAP was even more impactful than sleep hygiene education intervention practices. The study participants met once a week for two hours and, at the end of the program, those in MAPs had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression.
It is postulated that MAPs could be used to provide a short-term solution to insomnia as it can be as effective as standard clinical treatments. Since a formalized program can be replicated and distributed easily to a community, it is hoped that it will become a more widespread tool. This is becoming more important as sleep deprivation in chronic pain patients can greatly increase pain sensitivity, which leads to a destructive cycle of additional sleepless nights and increasingly intense pain episodes.
Meditation can fight off stress-related pain
Meditation can have amazing effects on your brain—it even has the ability to alter the way you think by providing a coping mechanism for stress.
Research from Carnegie Mellon University presents findings that show the increase in brain activity after patients underwent an intensive three-day meditation program. Specifically, this program raised functional connectivity in the resting default mode network in areas important to attention and executive control in the brain. It also reduced IL-6 levels and, in combination, accounted for lower inflammation levels throughout the whole body.
David Creswell, lead author and associate professor of psychology said that:
“We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health,”
Meditation for pain relief can help beat depression too!
Depression and pain can easily feed off each other and create a vicious cycle. This can become dangerous as depression has the nasty side effect of inhibiting the desire to reach out for help.
A Rutgers study found that combining MAP and body exercises together could reduce the symptoms of depression. Participants engaged in these exercises twice a week. They began with 30 minutes of meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic activity. After two months, the symptoms of depression decreased by 40%.
Why is meditation for pain relief so important?
The power of meditation has experts hopeful because the most common option for treating chronic pain right now often involves powerful, highly addictive, and dangerous narcotics. Not only are these medications dangerous, but they’re also largely ineffective for reducing chronic pain. That’s because the pain response in a person living with chronic pain is different from someone healing from an acute injury.
Many unknown biological processes are at play that perpetuate pain in chronic cases. These processes aren’t fully understood, particularly in conditions still shrouded in mystery, like fibromyalgia. Even patients with more common conditions may lack key answers about the reasons underlying their pain. For example, only one-third of chronic back pain patients are able to get an accurate diagnosis, reports The Atlantic.
No matter the source, meditation is a powerful way for patients to exert more influence over their experience. Wake Forest University researcher Fadel Zeidan tells the magazine:
“Meditation teaches patients how to react to the pain… People are less inclined to have the ‘ouch’ reaction, then they are able to control the emotional reaction to the pain.”
Meditation also teaches people about the truth of impermanence, Zeidan adds, the understanding that everything is fleeting, even pain. Developing the ability to separate physical sensations from the emotional ones helps people learn how to manage each separately.
How to start a meditation practice
Meditation usually takes between 15 and 20 minutes to complete and can help with a wide array of physical and psychological issues. Since it is not physically demanding, most people can do it at home without worrying about safety concerns. Please keep in mind that while meditation can be very effective, you should always seek medical assistance for any major problems and it is not recommended as a substitute for a qualified physician’s care.
Like starting any new habit, beginning a meditation practice takes time and effort. Soon, however, you will come to look forward to the experience, especially if it helps you feel better.
How long should I meditate for?
Meditation may seem overwhelming at first. Some people can’t imagine sitting still for a long period of time. The best way to start is in small periods of time that don’t elicit resistance. You can start meditating for as little as one minute each day.
Although the true benefits will come with longer periods spent in meditation, start with an amount of time that you feel able to commit to every day. At the start, developing a solid habit is the most important thing.
At the longer end, some people meditate for 20 minutes or even one hour each day. But start with whatever makes you feel comfortable and lengthen your sessions as you feel ready.
When should I meditate?
Some people like to start their days off by meditating first thing in the morning. Others prefer to sit at night. The timing is up to you.
When you’re first beginning the meditation habit, it’s best to sit at the same time every day. Consider creating a reminder alarm on your cell phone so you don’t forget. Eventually, you will crave the peace that comes after your sessions, and will notice if you miss one. But at first, it helps to put extra effort into settling into a routine.
How do you meditate?
The simplest way is to find a comfortable seated position, preferably on the floor but feel free to find a chair if that isn’t a possibility for you. If you are on the floor, find a cushion to sit on to elevate the hips slightly above the knee. This makes it more comfortable to sit.
Sit up nice and tall, but without a rigid back. Find the balance between being alert and relaxed. Your hands can be palm up or palm down on your knee. You may want to take gyan mudra, touching the tips of the thumb and index finger together. This hand position is said in yoga tradition to reduce tension.
Once you’ve found a comfortable seated position, bring your awareness to your breath. Notice the breath entering and leaving your body. Notice any pain or sensation in your body. Observe any emotions that may arise. You may continue like this, scanning the body for sensation for the duration of your meditation practice, focusing on the breath.
If you have trouble sitting still, try an active meditation. The renowned mystic Osho has an excellent book explaining a variety of meditations that include visualizations to occupy the mind and physically active meditations for those who can’t sit still. You could also search YouTube for active meditations.
The purpose of meditation is to bring peace. So if you feel resistance about a particular aspect of meditation, inquire why you feel that resistance. Sometimes, resistance is a sign we must persevere. Other times it’s a sign that you need to find an alternate option. Only you know the truth. Whatever brings you peace is the best way to move forward.
How do I count time?
The simplest way is to use your cell phone’s timer function. However, once you start meditating for longer periods of time, it’s nice to have a timer that rings at intervals. Many free apps are available to help with this.
What is your experience with meditation for pain relief? Has it helped you?
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