Managing chronic pain with meditation

We take a look at the important role meditation and mindfulness can play in effective chronic pain management, and how to add meditation to a treatment plan.

The Mind-Body Connection

As our understanding of chronic pain progresses, it has become increasingly clear that therapies aimed at mental and emotional well being can play a vital role in helping patients manage their conditions and improve their quality of life. Many of these therapies focus on the concept and practice of “mindfulness”.

As the University of Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine explains, mindfulness “means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”

The key to mindfulness is not just noticing our internal processes and external surroundings, but to then accept them without evaluating them as “good” or “bad”. Research indicates that by practicing this awareness-without-judgement, chronic pain sufferers are able to change their emotions towards their illness and ultimately alter their perception of pain, leading to often significant reduction in mental/emotional stress and physical symptoms.

The Benefits of Meditation for Chronic Pain

Many people pursue mindfulness through various types of meditation.

At its core, meditation is simply setting aside time to practice mindfulness in the same way people set aside time to practice playing an instrument. Regardless of which meditation strategy patients choose, the benefits of meditation in managing chronic illness and pain have become clear.

A recent survey of scientific studies on meditation and chronic pain found that “Mindfulness meditation engages multiple unique brain mechanisms that [lessen] the subjective experience of pain.” Furthermore, “analgesic mechanisms supporting mindfulness-based meditation change as a function of increasing meditative experience/training.”

In other words, meditation can retrain the brain regarding “the meaning, interpretation, and appraisal of” incoming pain signals. This reduces the stress and fear that often accompanies the experience of pain, making it easier to cope and often lowering pain levels overall.

Furthermore, meditation allows patients to alleviate their body’s physical response to pain by, for example, relaxing tense muscles, lowering increased heart rate, deepening the breath, etc. This can not only reduce pain in the short term, but also breaks the cycle of symptoms causing stress and stress increasing symptoms.

Integrating Meditation into Your Treatment Plan

Fortunately, meditation is one of the easiest therapies to integrate into an overall treatment plan. You can start with little to no prior instruction, at any level of physical fitness, and quickly see benefits even if you can only set aside a few minutes a day.

There are many methods of meditation, but most share four common characteristics:

  • Practice happens in a quiet space with limited distractions
  • Participants sit, lay down, or walk slowly (whatever is most comfortable)
  • Participants focus their attention (ex. on their breathing or repeating a short phrase)
  • Participants work to keep an “open attitude (let thoughts come and go without judging them)”

This can be done on your own at any time in the day, or you can search for a group class in your area. You may also choose a guided meditation to follow (many of which can be found for free on YouTube).

Be sure to talk to your healthcare team about pursuing meditation as a way to manage your symptoms. While meditation is non-invasive and generally considered very low-risk, healthcare providers may be able to point you towards the methods best suited for your unique needs.

However you choose to pursue it, the most important thing for meditation is consistency. By committing to regular (even if brief) practice, you can start reaping the rewards of meditation as quickly as possible.

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