Many chronic pain sufferers believe that pain is a purely physical phenomenon. Although there is a strong physical component in pain experiences, it is important to understand that the nervous system and brain also play key roles in how pain is felt. Your mind may increase the amount of pain you experience, but, if properly trained, it may also minimize pain experiences.
In recent years, medical researchers have gained new insights into how the human brain modulates pain, and developed new methods to “trick” the mind into reducing pain symptoms. Among the most promising therapies for pain management is mindful meditation. One study found that mindful meditation can reduce pain by 57 percent, and, even 90 percent among expert meditators.
The growing research on mindful meditation and pain management is fascinating because it shows that the majority of pain symptoms are influenced by cognitive processes. If properly trained, your mind can limit the potency of pain conditions including:
- Back problems
- Multiple sclerosis
A Short History of Mindful Meditation
To understand the relationship between mindful meditation and pain management, you must possess some knowledge of the history of mindful meditation. Mindfulness in its present form is a type of meditation that emphasizes a state of attentiveness to experiences occurring in the immediate time frame.
Originally, mindful meditation was developed in the Buddhist tradition over thousands of years. This kind of Buddhist meditation attempted to achieve enlightenment by shrugging off the hindrances of worldly cravings. In practice, mindful meditation in the Buddhist framework was used to de-emphasize sensory stimuli.
In modern culture, mindful meditation is a non-religious practice that focuses the mind on the moment rather than the future or past. The system is effective at limiting stress and unpleasant experiences including pain.
Medical Applications of Mindful Meditation
Mindful meditation has become increasingly popular in the medical community as its benefits become more recognized.
- ACT therapy—Acceptance and commitment therapy uses mindful meditation in a clinical psychology modality to broaden psychological potential. This therapy is used to treat phobias, anxiety and depression.
- Dialectical behavior therapy—This therapy is used in the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Mindfulness helps patients better monitor and regulate thought processes.
- Mindfulness relaxation—This treatment uses focused breathing, guided imagery and mindful meditation to reduce stress and help induce relaxation.
How Mindful Meditation Works
For many of those unfamiliar with how pain acts upon the mind and body, it is easy to dismiss mindful meditation. However, once you understand that pain is often a mental construct, you may begin to see why mindful meditation and pain management are so closely linked.
First, you should know that there are two kinds of pain. Primary pain is the result of illness or injury that stimulates nerves to send a signal to the brain. Secondary pain is usually a mental reaction to the initial pain impulse. Secondary pain is often more powerful and of longer duration, and is intended to alert you to bodily damage.
Secondary pain is also your mind’s way of solving the problem of what caused the pain. Your mind will search through your memories to find a similar experience that may offer some clues on how to prevent it. Unfortunately, if you suffer from chronic pain, then this process will only dredge up unpleasant memories that reinforce your current discomfort.
This pain recollection is an unconscious process that happens almost instantly. If you have reoccurring pain, then you could experience heightened anxiety and depression about future pain you may be helpless to stop. Unfortunately, these pain and anxiety conditions can cycle and feed on one another, producing even more pain.
This unrelenting feedback loop of pain and stress may even produce biological changes in your brain. Studies reveal that brains lose grey matter over time in chronic pain patients. Neuro-imaging of chronic pain sufferers has found that processing of pain shifts from sensory areas to emotional areas, suggesting that it isn’t the initial pain impulse but the secondary cognitive processing that dominates in long-term pain conditions.
This is also the reason why mindful meditation is so effective among pain patients. Mindfulness instills the ability to reduce stress and anxiety, key effectors of pain intensity. With less stress, the cycle of increasing pain is short-circuited.
Incorporating Mindful Meditation into Your Life
At first glance, it can appear that meditators are doing very little, but, in reality, they are engaging in a powerful process of self-awareness and enhanced mental control. Those are fairly alien concepts to most people in our modern culture, so it may take some time to fully grasp the workings of mindful meditation and pain management.
- Peaceful location—initially, you want to choose a place free from distraction for the duration of your session. Most people choose a room in their home or garden that is quiet and comfortable. Choose a sitting, standing or lying position that is comfortable for you.
- Find your own path—although many people engage in mindful meditation on their own, others find they are more attentive when in the presence of others. If you feel you need some instruction, you may find it at local meditation schools or online.
- Consult your doctor—you should discuss any new therapy with your doctor, even one as low-risk as mindful meditation. Not only can your doctor provide valuable advice on how to proceed, but he may also assist you in monitoring your progress.
- Enroll in a pain management course—there are many well-established mindful meditation and pain management courses available in communities across the country as well as online schools. Some have been founded by highly respected psychologists and medical professionals like Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.
- Progress at your own pace—you may not get immediate pain relief, but if you persist in your mindful meditation sessions, you should find that your pain symptoms are diminishing in potency. Some patients may experience some pain mitigation in as little as two weeks, while others may take a bit longer.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees. The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship. Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.