Can meditation really reduce chronic pain? Research says "Yes!"

Can meditation really reduce chronic pain? Research says "Yes!"

Chronic pain affects millions of us worldwide and can significantly impact our quality of life. While pain management approaches often involve medication, physical therapy, or invasive procedures, an emerging field of research suggests that mindfulness meditation can be a highly effective and low cost method to help yourself.

I know what you might be thinking: great in theory but will it really work for me? Let’s explore what it is and try a little exercise that will help you figure out whether this is a practice that makes sense for you. 

How does Mindfulness Meditation help with pain?

Mindfulness meditation is a specific type of meditation that emphasizes non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, including thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. While meditation can encompass a broader range of techniques and goals, mindfulness meditation specifically focuses on cultivating and developing a non-reactive, accepting stance towards one's experiences, rather than opposing them and amplifying any negative feelings.

While mindfulness meditation is a practice rooted in ancient traditions, recent research has demonstrated its effectiveness in modern pain management. A systematic review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine in 2014 analyzed 47 randomized clinical trials and found that mindfulness meditation had a consistent, moderate effect on reducing pain intensity and improving physical functioning in individuals with chronic pain. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that mindfulness meditation reduced pain intensity by activating brain regions associated with pain regulation.

Mindfulness Meditation You Can Try At Home

A sub-practice of mindfulness meditation known as the Body Scan Technique was developed specifically as a means to spread awareness throughout the body without becoming fixated on a painful focal point. You can try this technique by following these simple steps:

  • Lie on your back or in any comfortable, outstretched position.

  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Feel your belly expanding gently when you inhale and receding when you exhale.

  • Focus on your left foot. Feel any and all sensations in this area, including pain. Try to recede a little more into the floor every time you exhale.

  • When your mind wanders, observe where it has gone and gently return your focus to the foot without judging yourself.

  • If you notice pain or anything else of note, acknowledge it and any thoughts or emotions that accompany it, and gently breathe through it. See if by carefully observing the discomfort, you can help your body to relax. Don't expect the pain to abate; just watch it with a curious,  non-judging mind.

  • Gradually, let go of the focus on your left foot completely—even if any pain or sensation there hasn't gone away or has intensified—and move up to the left ankle and repeat the process. Focus on both sides of your body, ascending from bottom to top.

  • Slowly and patiently, proceed this way throughout the body until you’ve arrived at your head. When you arrive at your head, feel what it feels like to breathe deeply and slowly through your nose. Do you feel the breath at the top of your sinuses or closer to the front of your nose. Repeat this for eight breaths.

Ready To Go Deeper?

Practicing the Body Scan Technique for even five minutes per day can be very helpful, but if you feel ready to take your practice to the next level, I recommend the Waking Up meditation app, available for both iOS and Android systems. Created by neuroscientist and meditation teacher Sam Harris, Waking Up offers a comprehensive and transformative meditation experience. The app provides a unique blend of guided meditations, daily lessons, and insights into the nature of consciousness. Harris' expertise and clear instructions make it accessible to both beginners and experienced practitioners. The app also features a user-friendly interface and a diverse range of meditation styles, allowing users to customize their practice. While the app utilizes a subscription model, Sam Harris has implemented a "pay what you can" policy, making it affordable for any budget. 

There is nothing good about chronic pain, but part of the challenge is to minimize the suffering our undisciplined mind can amplify. Meditation promises the potential to put some distance between us and the pain we experience. We note it, but we don’t become it or dwell on it. It is in fact just one of a multitude of experiences within our body at any given time. Please consider mindfulness as one strategy to move you closer to the life you want to live. If these techniques or other approaches have been helpful for you, please share your experiences below.


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