Chronic pain is nothing new. The condition is so prevalent, in fact, it is estimated that around 50 million adults in the U.S. are affected by chronic pain that interferes with their daily activities; that’s a staggering 1 in 5 Americans, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention .
Chronic pain is any pain that lasts for three months or more. It can be triggered by an injury or disease, but in some cases, the cause may be unknown. Arthritis, recurrent migraines, fibromyalgia, and multiple sclerosis are all examples of chronic pain.
With that said, the benefits of meditation on mental health are well-documented, with many people gaining effective relief from depression, stress, and anxiety through consistent practice, but what about its effects on physical pain?
Many people may be dubious about using mindfulness meditation for pain relief. While it certainly isn’t a magical cure, mounting evidence suggests that meditation can be a useful tool in alleviating chronic pain, so don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Read on to learn more about how meditation works for pain relief, the different types of meditation, and how you can practice meditation to manage your pain effectively.
Before diving into chronic pain management techniques, let’s get one thing straight: meditation can’t cure your pain, nor is it designed to ignore the pain away; rather, it retrains the brain through mindfulness to increase your tolerance and transform your relationship with pain.
So how exactly does meditation help to ease the pain?
Firstly, it alters the structure within areas of the brain responsible for processing pain and regulating emotional and behavioral responses to pain, otherwise known as neuroplasticity.
A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that meditation has been shown to significantly reduce pain sensitivity by decreasing activity in the pain-processing cortex and increasing activity within the regions that regulate associated emotional and behavioral reactions .
Furthermore, a 2013 study found that blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol were significantly lower in participants after engaging in a four-day mindfulness meditation programme . Based on this premise, meditation can boost pain tolerance by reducing stress.
Whenever a person is faced with a stressful situation, it arouses the nervous system’s ‘flight-or-fight’ response, subsequently aggravating the pain. Therefore, by employing meditation techniques to calm the nervous system, stress is lowered along with pain intensity.
Finally, meditation helps to relax the mind and body, which triggers a release of feel-good hormones known as endorphins, which act as natural painkillers. This process can make it easier to observe pain sensations and learn to accept the associated discomfort, thereby increasing your ability to withstand pain.
In fact, one study by Elias and Wilson found that transcendental meditation can produce relaxing effects similar to benzodiazepine-a prescription drug used to treat severe anxiety .
Meditation essentially teaches people to produce a controlled and diminished response to pain as opposed to a strong knee-jerk emotional reaction.
There is considerable evidence to indicate that psychological pain management techniques can ease chronic pain in some people, prompting numerous healthcare professionals and organizations to integrate meditation into their pain management programs.
A 2018 white paper, for instance, states that nonpharmacological treatment methods are underused, despite showing positive effects for people with chronic pain . Thus, meditation may be particularly useful for patients who no longer experience relief from traditional medications or wish to endure adverse side effects. It can also be an effective way to combat prescription drug abuse that has become rampant in the U.S. in recent times.
After all, conventional medication fails to take into account the psychological and social aspects of pain; on the other hand, meditation can effectively address feelings of anxiety, stress and depression associated with pain, thereby helping to reduce it.
For example, a 2012 study found that participants who engaged in mindfulness meditation for chronic pain reduced pain and anxiety by 22 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively .
A more recent study from 2020 found a marked reduction in depression and a significant improvement in perceptions of pain among participants who undertook an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program .
These findings demonstrate the individuality of pain; in other words, who you are influences your reaction and assessment of pain. Accordingly, meditation can empower people to take control over how they process pain as a way to minimize it.
More compelling still is research on the long-lasting benefits of meditation for physical pain as compared with other pain-management techniques. As early as the 1980s, it was confirmed that people with chronic pain who practiced meditation experienced immediate psychological and physical improvements that lasted for up to 15 months .
Such findings have also endured the test of time, including in a 2016 study following adults suffering from chronic back pain. Those who treated themselves with mindfulness techniques reported greater improvement in functional limitations and back pain at 26 and 52 weeks compared to those who received solely conventional care .
Various forms of meditation are intended to help you better manage your chronic pain, but it’s important to note that they don’t treat the root cause of your problem.
While many people experience pain relief from the mindfulness techniques below, they don’t necessarily work for everyone. If, after some time, you find that meditation doesn’t help your pain, that’s completely okay; it just means you can move on to alternative approaches that are better suited to you.
The key is to delve into the practice without expecting a quick fix to avoid disappointment or frustration. Here are some options you can give a go:
Mindfulness meditation helps you to dissociate from your reactions. It involves bringing your focus to your breath and quietly concentrating on any thoughts and emotions that arise in the process without passing any judgement.
The key is not to resist these thoughts and emotions; allow them to crop up and once you’ve acknowledged them, bring your awareness back to the present moment. Repeat this process as often as you need to during the session.
You can practice mindfulness meditation by yourself, with an instructor, or using a meditation app to guide you through it.
Body scan meditation involves shifting your mental focus to your body. Starting from the head, pay attention to any sensations you’re experiencing and relax your body as you perform your scan.
Continue this process with each body part; notice each area where you feel any aches, pain or discomfort, and simply breathe through it. Visualize the pain leaving your body through your breath before moving on to the next area.
Paying attention to your breath can improve how you feel, behave, and react to stressful situations. Breathwork meditation helps you to tune into your breath and intentionally slow down your breathing patterns to promote relaxation in the mind and body.
Keeping a straight neck and back, inhale slowly through your nose for three seconds, then exhale slowly through the mouth to the count of six. Place one hand on your stomach and feel it pushing out as you breathe in and drawing inwards as you breathe out.
As you become accustomed to the practice, try extending the length of time you inhale and exhale for enhanced results.
Visualization and guided imagery meditation have proven benefits in relieving pain and involve visualizing a positive image in your mind to bring about your desired results.
A 2015 study of patients with fibromyalgia found depression and pain levels had significantly reduced after partaking in this particular meditation technique .
Guided imagery for pain management may include you picturing wherever the pain is in your body and gathering it into a big red ball. Imagine the ball getting bigger and smaller in size or even changing shape and color.
Now practice making your mental image of this ball as small as possible and moving it further away from your body with each deep breath you take. Feel free to get creative with how you get rid of this ball of pain; whether you make it instantly vanish, crumble, explode, or melt away, the choice is up to you.
The great thing about using meditation to relieve pain is you don’t need to be a Buddhist monk or qualified yogi, nor do you need any formal training from one to execute it. Special props aren’t necessary either; all it takes is a peaceful and quiet place, a positive outlook, patience, and a little persistence to develop the practice.
So, for the novice meditators, here are some useful tips on how to meditate to manage your pain effectively:
To get the most out of your meditation session, find a comfortable space where you won’t get interrupted; this could be your bed, couch, or living room floor. Whether you’re seated or lying down, do whatever feels good for your body.
You may even try creating an ambient atmosphere to prime you for your session, including using candles, aromatherapy, and soothing music. Also, feel free to use pillows and blankets to support your comfort and sense of security.
There are a whole wealth of tools and resources available to ease you into meditation, many of which are free. You can try books, meditation apps, YouTube videos, podcasts, classes, and personal instructors to help get you started.
To make the process easier, you may choose to follow a guided practice through the Mesmerize app. The unique audio-visual experience helps to reduce pain through expertly-crafted guided meditations.
The hypnotic visuals, psycho-acoustic music, and visual breathing features are based on clinically-validated principles to help ease your body into a state of relaxation to minimize chronic pain and alleviate associated psychological symptoms like stress, depression, and anxiety.
Download Mesmerize on your iOS device today to get started.
For some people, the prospect of meditation can seem daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. For any novice, it’s always best to start small, engaging for as little as five minutes once or twice a week as your mind and body adjust to the new practice. Use a timer to keep track if that helps.
As you become more experienced, you can gradually increase the time you spend meditating and your number of weekly sessions according to whatever suits you best.
You might find it helpful to keep a journal to track your progress. Rate and record your pain severity before and after a meditation session to build clarity on your experience. A journal can help you build a detailed map of the history of your meditation practice and make informed choices based on areas of pain management you find more troubling.
There is a direct link between the brain and chronic pain. Research states that pain is constructed entirely in the brain, but that doesn’t mean the pain you experience isn’t real. Pain is only physically felt once your brain has processed the signals sent to it by the body. The brain can also perpetuate feelings of chronic pain based on an individual’s situation, beliefs, expectations and emotions in relation to their pain.
Your mind is powerful enough to create a pain that doesn’t physically exist and increase the intensity of a pre-existing pain or make it linger. This phenomenon, known as psychogenic pain, happens when your pain is linked to psychological, emotional, and behavioral issues. Occupying yourself with negative thoughts about your pain influence the intensity of your pain and whether it becomes chronic.
Just as ruminating on negative thoughts can worsen pain, adopting a positive outlook can relieve pain. Techniques like focusing on pain-free areas, distracting yourself from pain, visualizing your pain going away, breathing deeply, and thinking positive thoughts in relation to your pain can all help increase your body’s pain tolerance and decrease sensitivity.