Can pain meditation help provide some relief?
Living with pain — either chronic or acute — can be physically and emotionally difficult, making everyday activities challenging; sometimes even excruciating. Meditation is one technique that some people integrate into their pain management protocol. To be clear, Meditation cannot take away the pain, but it can transform your relationship with pain. Research shows that pain meditation may be effective in helping to bring about some relief.
The purpose of meditation for pain management, and the techniques used, is that it teaches you to adopt a curious mind to explore and investigate the pain. The first thing most of us do with pain is push it away, wanting it to end, resisting the feeling — and it’s that resistance that can often exacerbate our pain or discomfort.
Meditation shows us how to step back and perhaps begin to unwind the pain, no matter whether it’s something long-standing and chronic, or something mild that’s niggled you for a short period of time. If you’ve been meaning to try meditation for pain relief, here’s how a regular mindfulness practice can change your relationship with pain.
It can be difficult to quell our expectations with this kind of meditation — the need for relief of some kind can be understandably strong — but, as much as possible, try to approach meditation for pain management free from expectation. Going into it with hopes can only lead to frustration. Meditate without any goal in mind other than to better understand the habits and tendencies of the mind where pain is concerned. Over time, with patience and practice, your perception of your pain will change.
"Meditate without any goal in mind other than to better understand the habits and tendencies of the mind where pain is concerned. Over time, with patience and practice, your perception of your pain will change."
Meditation for pain
One of the many science-backed benefits of meditation is that it can change the shape of your brain, a process known as neuroplasticity. Specifically, meditating regularly increases both cortical thickness (the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory), and gray matter (the area responsible for emotional regulation, planning, and problem-solving). So, how does this affect how we manage pain?
Increased cortical thickness and gray matter can actually lower pain sensitivity, according to a small study of meditators from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Montreal. Moreover, a research review of the topic found that mindfulness-based interventions significantly decreased pain intensity in 62.5 percent of the 16 studies.
Perhaps even more compelling is the research showing that the improvements experienced through pain meditation are maintained over time, especially compared with other pain-management techniques. In the early 1980s, Jon Kabat-Zin and his research team found that people who suffer from chronic pain and used mindfulness techniques not only experienced immediate physical and psychological improvements, but also were still experiencing these improvements up to 15 months later.
A more recent study from 2005 compared the effects of mindfulness techniques and massage therapy on chronic pain. People who used mindfulness techniques for pain didn’t experience a change in symptoms immediately, however, at a 12-week follow-up, they reported significant psychological improvements. Alternatively, participants who used massage therapy reported an immediate significant reduction in pain, but this was not maintained at follow-up.
And, a 2016 study found similar results: adults who had chronic low-back pain and used mindfulness techniques had greater improvement in functional limitation and back pain at 26 and 52 weeks compared with those who had usual care.
The practice of looking at pain from a distance and reevaluating our relationship to it can be life-changing, to the extent that we experience pain in a different, more tolerable way.
If you are looking for a new approach to pain management, the Headspace app offers a 30-day Pain Management Course (available to subscribers only). Or, check out the three-part Basics course to help you learn the foundation and common techniques of mindfulness and meditation, as well as a whole library of content to explore.
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