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Managing Chronic Pain With Meditation

Chronic Pain and Meditation

Everyone knows about meditation today and the many benefits that it offers. This ancient practice has its roots in Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions (1, 2, 3). The practice of meditation begins by drawing your attention to the present moment and avoiding judging your thoughts while you are doing this. There have been several studies that have been carried out to find out if meditation helps in reducing chronic pain. However, these have found mixed results. Furthermore, the huge variety of the methods used in these studies has made it challenging to compare them (4,5,6).

However, it cannot be denied that some studies have shown that meditation can effectively lessen chronic pain, stress, and anxiety for many people. Studies have also shown that meditation can work for beginners as well and not just those who are experts in the technique already.

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Managing Chronic Pain With Meditation

Let us look at what the evidence shows.

Meditation Can Help Retrain Your Brain

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One of the biggest reasons why meditation can help in managing chronic pain is because it retrains the brain. The practice of meditation makes use of different pathways in the brain to deal with pain as compared to the paths that other pain treatments use. Over a period of time, meditation can alter the structure of the brain to deal better with pain. Here are some studies that have explored this:

  • A study from 2018 done on mindfulness, meditation, and the brain found that meditation can alter the structure of the brain in the long run. The resulting change that occurs in the cortical thickness in some areas of the brain makes you less sensitive to pain. (7)
  • It has been found that the neural mechanisms that meditation uses to modify pain sensitivity are different from the pathways used by other techniques. Toi shows this, a 2012 study found that meditation enhanced cognitive disengagement and increased the sensory processing of the pain. (8)
  • A small, randomized, double-blind study carried out in 2016 made use of the opioid blocker naloxone or a placebo to study pain decrease with meditation. The premise behind the study was to show that meditation induces the body’s own opioid system to kick in. The group who were on the placebo experienced dramatically less pain as compared to the group that was on the opioid blocker. (9)

Despite these promising studies, a lot of research is still going on to look at the exact physiological mechanisms that are associated with meditation and pain reduction.

So does meditation help with chronic pain? Let’s take a look.

Can Meditation Help People With Chronic Pain?

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The answer is yes. Meditation does help with chronic pain. Several studies have found that meditation helps with chronic pain.

  • A smaller controlled study done in 2012 found that people who regularly practiced mindfulness were successful in reducing pain by 22 percent. The participants were also able to decrease anticipatory anxiety by 29 percent. (10)
  • A meta-analysis carried out in 2014 by the Guiyang Medical University in China on mindfulness and pain reported finding insufficient evidence that mindfulness helped decrease the intensity of pain. However, the same study also found that it helped relieve depression and anxiety in people who had chronic pain. The study further recommended that doctors or mental health professionals should think about integrating meditation into their pain treatment programs. (11)
  • A review done in 2017 of non-pharmacological treatments found that mindfulness-based stress reduction significantly improved lower back pain. The trial was carried out on 350 adults, and the research team found that the participants experienced relief in lower back pain by nearly 30 percent. The results also lasted for a year after the treatment finished. (12)
  • Another study done in 2017 by the University Hospital Zurich and University of Zurich, Switzerland, and the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, on 864 people who also had chronic lower back pain found that meditation helped bring about short-term improvement in the intensity of pain and physical functioning of the participants. (13)
  • In 2018, a white paper done on non-pharmacological pain found that these treatments are underutilized. The white paper concluded that mindfulness techniques had a positive impact on people with chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia, headache, and irritable bowel syndrome. (14)
  • Another 2018 review on mindfulness and its impact on the brain concluded that experienced practitioners of mindfulness become less sensitive to pain when compared to a control population. The study measured this by conducting MRI brain scans. (15)
  • A recent 2019 study on mindfulness and pain reported that the practice of mindfulness was linked with lower pain sensitivity, even in people who had no experience with meditation before the study. (16)

However, despite the promising results of these studies, it is essential to remember that every person is different, and what works in relieving pain in one person might not work for others.

Why Should You Try Meditation To Manage Chronic Pain?

In recent years, there has been a lot of research and focus on meditation and its impact on managing chronic pain. Studies have looked at what works for different kinds of chronic pain, including chronic diseases or back pain. There are several types of meditation techniques and tools that can help you get started if you want to give meditation a try to manage your pain. Some examples include:

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  • Meditation apps
  • Books
  • Classes
  • Online videos
  • Podcasts
  • Personal instructors

Some people find that using more than one form of meditation works better for them. There are also many online guides for free to help you get started.

Unlike many other forms of pain relief, when you practice meditation, you turn your focus towards the pain instead of looking away from it in an attempt to find relief. You can say that you are working to reduce the pain by working with and focusing on it instead of trying to ignore or block the pain.

What Types Of Meditation Can Help You Manage Chronic Pain?

If you have decided that you want to try meditation to manage your pain, you will find that there are many types of meditation to choose from. (17,18)

  1. Mindfulness or Mindful Meditation

    This is one of the most common forms of meditation used today. Mindfulness or mindful meditation helps you manage your pain, stress, and anxiety. You can either practice this form of meditation by yourself or with an instructor to guide you. In this type of meditation, you quietly focus or concentrate on your thoughts without forming any kind of judgment towards them. This is also one of the most popular types of meditation as well as one of the most researched meditation forms in recent years. (19,20)

    You can learn mindfulness from a variety of apps that help you meditate through your phone or another device.

  2. Breathwork Meditation

    This form of meditation focuses on using a type of breathing technique to alter your breathing to relax your mind. Breathwork meditation is sometimes used in combination with mindfulness meditation to help a person concentrate and relax. There are many types of breathwork techniques available, and you can choose one that you feel the most comfortable with. (21)

  3. Visualization Meditation

    Visualization or guided imagery meditation works by combining visualization of something positive while meditating. The purpose of this meditation is to calm you down, focus on your thoughts, and reduce pain, stress, and anxiety. (22)

  4. Body Scanning Meditation

    This form of meditation focuses on the body from top to bottom. The purpose of body scanning is to take in everything about your body as you relax each part of the body while scanning from head to toe.

Conclusion

Many scientific studies have shown the effectiveness of meditation in relieving chronic pain in the long run. However, it is difficult to compare these studies because of the different sources of pain and various types of meditation. Nevertheless, the evidence does show that meditation can help many people manage their pain by using neural pathways to make the brain less sensitive to pain and increasing the production of the brain’s own pain-reducing opioids.

If you suffer from some form of chronic pain, you can consider looking at meditation as a solution. You can find many free guides to practicing various forms of meditation online.

References:

  1. Monk-Turner, E., 2003. The benefits of meditation: experimental findings. The social science journal, 40(3), pp.465-470.
  2. Behan, C., 2020. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Irish journal of psychological medicine, 37(4), pp.256-258.
  3. Sumter, M.T., Monk-Turner, E. and Turner, C., 2009. The benefits of meditation practice in the correctional setting. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 15(1), pp.47-57.
  4. Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B.A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., Colaiaco, B., Maher, A.R., Shanman, R.M., Sorbero, M.E. and Maglione, M.A., 2017. Mindfulness meditation for chronic pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 51(2), pp.199-213.
  5. la Cour, P. and Petersen, M., 2015. Effects of mindfulness meditation on chronic pain: a randomized controlled trial. Pain Medicine, 16(4), pp.641-652.
  6. Ball, E.F., Nur Shafina Muhammad Sharizan, E., Franklin, G. and Rogozińska, E., 2017. Does mindfulness meditation improve chronic pain? A systematic review. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 29(6), pp.359-366.
  7. St. Marie, R. and Talebkhah, K.S., 2018. Neurological evidence of a mind-body connection: mindfulness and pain control. American Journal of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal, 13(4), pp.2-5.
  8. Gard, T., Hölzel, B.K., Sack, A.T., Hempel, H., Lazar, S.W., Vaitl, D. and Ott, U., 2012. Pain attenuation through mindfulness is associated with decreased cognitive control and increased sensory processing in the brain. Cerebral cortex, 22(11), pp.2692-2702.
  9. Sharon, H., Maron-Katz, A., Simon, E.B., Flusser, Y., Hendler, T., Tarrasch, R. and Brill, S., 2016. Mindfulness meditation modulates pain through endogenous opioids. The American journal of medicine, 129(7), pp.755-758.
  10. Gard, T., Hölzel, B.K., Sack, A.T., Hempel, H., Lazar, S.W., Vaitl, D. and Ott, U., 2012. Pain attenuation through mindfulness is associated with decreased cognitive control and increased sensory processing in the brain. Cerebral cortex, 22(11), pp.2692-2702.
  11. Song, Y., Lu, H., Chen, H., Geng, G. and Wang, J., 2014. Mindfulness intervention in the management of chronic pain and psychological comorbidity: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Nursing Sciences, 1(2), pp.215-223.
  12. Bonakdar, R.A., 2017. Integrative pain management. Medical Clinics, 101(5), pp.987-1004.
  13. Anheyer, D., Haller, H., Barth, J., Lauche, R., Dobos, G. and Cramer, H., 2017. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for treating low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of internal medicine, 166(11), pp.799-807.
  14. Tick, H., Nielsen, A., Pelletier, K.R., Bonakdar, R., Simmons, S., Glick, R., Ratner, E., Lemmon, R.L., Wayne, P. and Zador, V., 2018. Evidence-based nonpharmacologic strategies for comprehensive pain care: the consortium pain task force white paper. Explore, 14(3), pp.177-211.
  15. Wielgosz, J., Goldberg, S.B., Kral, T.R., Dunne, J.D. and Davidson, R.J., 2019. Mindfulness meditation and psychopathology. Annual review of clinical psychology, 15, pp.285-316.
  16. Zeidan, F., Salomons, T., Farris, S.R., Emerson, N.M., Adler–Neal, A., Jung, Y. and Coghill, R.C., 2018. Neural mechanisms supporting the relationship between dispositional mindfulness and pain. Pain, 159(12), p.2477.
  17. Roca, P., Vazquez, C., Diez, G., Brito-Pons, G. and McNally, R.J., 2021. Not all types of meditation are the same: Mediators of change in mindfulness and compassion meditation interventions. Journal of Affective Disorders, 283, pp.354-362.
  18. Headspace. 2022. What are all the types of meditation & which one is best?. [online] Available at: <https://www.headspace.com/meditation/techniques> [Accessed 18 February 2022].
  19. Davis, D.M. and Hayes, J.A., 2011. What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2), p.198.
  20. Hülsheger, U.R., Alberts, H.J., Feinholdt, A. and Lang, J.W., 2013. Benefits of mindfulness at work: the role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of applied psychology, 98(2), p.310.
  21. Sessa, S.A., 2007. Meditation, breath work, and focus training for teachers and students-the five minutes a day that can really make a difference. Journal of College Teaching & Learning (TLC), 4(10).
  22. Hoffart, M.B. and Keene, E.P., 1998. Body-mind-spirit: the benefits of visualization. AJN The American Journal of Nursing, 98(12), pp.44-47.

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