Pain Relief through Mindfulness Meditation

Do you experience chronic pain? You are not alone.  Chronic pain burdens 100 million adults in the United States, which is a vast number, when you think about it. The population of the United States is currently about 327 million, so approximately 1 in 3.27 people experience chronic pain, which can be life altering, if not life hindering.  Sufferers seek relief, and as a result, spend time and money visiting doctors searching for answers.  Unfortunately, most of those answers involve prescription drugs, and with the opioid crisis now claiming the lives of more people annually than ever, alternatives have been studied as a viable option for natural pain management. One of those natural alternatives, a simple remedy based on an ancient practice, has proven effective in managing pain.

Mindfulness Meditation and Pain Relief

Mindfulness meditation has ancient roots, but it is not new to the United States.  You may  have even heard of it practiced in the workplace, classrooms, and even by professional athletes. It has grown in popularity and with good reason. Mindfulness meditation, also known as mindfulness, has many empirically studied benefits, including pain management, stress reduction, and improved sex.

The Science Behind Mindfulness Meditation

Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of practicing mindfulness in reducing our experience of pain. A recent Wake Forest School of Medicine study found that mindfulness meditation works differently on the brain than opioids, even bypassing opioid receptors completely.  Mindfulness meditation activates two specific brain regions, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and anterior cingulate cortex, associated with self-control, and deactivates the thalamus, the gateway that determines which sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers. In simplest form, meditation changes the way the mind perceives pain, so the pain becomes more bearable.

Meditation also changes the brain itself. A study led by Sara Lazar demonstrated that participants who spent an average of 27 minutes a day meditating had an increase in gray-matter density in the part of the brain that is associated with learning and memory, and a surprising increase in density in the area associated with compassion.  Studies using brain imaging tests like MRIs have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation activates parts of the brain associated with pain control. As a result, medical professionals are now beginning to promote meditation as a substitute for opioids.

How to Bring Mindfulness into Your Life

Mindfulness is easy to bring into daily practice. Mindfulness is simply paying attention without judgment or expectation, and meditation is just one form of mindfulness.  Mindfulness practices can range from spending 5 minutes to focus on your breath to concentrating on the taste and texture of each bite of food during meals, instead of scarfing it down in five minutes or eating while distracted by the television or reading material.  Learning to focus your mind in this way (it is a skill that needs to learned), helps you to shift your attention from a feeling of helplessness regarding pain (“There is nothing I can do about this”), to having a sense of control over how you experience pain (“I accept that this is happening, but I choose how I relate to it”).  Mindfulness is not a panacea.  It  does not necessarily eliminate the pain, but instead teaches us how to better cope with the pain.

A Simple Mindfulness Meditation Technique

Mindfulness is truly a very simple undertaking. Here is an easy mindfulness exercise you can try at at time in any place.

  • Focus on your breath.  Sit in a quiet place with your back straight (no slumping, as it affects the quality of your breath) without feeling rigid.  Become aware of your breath moving in and out of your body and begin to breath deeply into the bottom part of our lung. Let your awareness of everything else fall away as you focus just on your breath.  If you do this for even three breaths after a stressful encounter that elevates your sympathetic nervous system, you will notice how quickly you feel calm again.

As simple as it is, it is probably the most powerful technique I teach.  You can continue with the practice by noticing the way your stomach expands and collapses with each breath. If your mind wanders, gently redirect your attention back to your breath. Don’t judge yourself. Remember that you’re not trying to achieve anything or become a “good meditator.” You’re simply becoming aware of what’s happening around you.

Other uses for mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation has many applications beyond helping with pain relief. It is often used also for managing the symptoms of depression and anxiety.  Please note that, even if practicing mindfulness brings relief to your pain, anxiety and/or depression, it does not replace proper medical treatment and diagnosis. Talk to your doctor about mindfulness meditation and how it can be used to complement your treatment plan.

Diana T. Moore, Ph.D.
Dr. Moore is a yoga and meditation instructor based in Southern New Hampshire.  She offers meditation classes and private instruction in person and via Skype.

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