It’s part of human life to suffer from pain due to diseases, injuries, or other causes. Pain can broadly be categorized into acute pain and chronic pain. Chronic pain is defined as lasting for more than 12 weeks, such as arthritis. Acute pain occurs suddenly as a result of various causes, such as from an injury or a toothache.
While prescription drugs are an option to ease the pain, the long-term use of these drugs can make the body develop resistance, requiring higher doses of the drug to be effective. This is especially the case with chronic pain since the symptoms tend to persist over time. Becoming addicted to painkillers is a devastating outcome of the need to alleviate chronic pain.
At the same time, living with pain can be a major physical strain, whether it’s merely uncomfortable or outright debilitating, and it can easily become an emotional strain as well. Moreover, the feelings of anger, frustration, despair, or even depression can deeply affect the quality of your life. Fortunately, there’s another pain management option that’s gaining a lot of popularity: meditation.
Meditation is regarded as one of the most viable alternatives to the use of drugs in pain management. In a broader sense, meditation involves cultivating mental clarity and concentration, which results in greater calm. In practice, most of its techniques involve some form of concentration on the body, the breath, specific words (mantras), a prayer, or a concept, along with taking a relaxed posture. And just like exercising, practitioners meditate on a daily basis, or at least routinely.
While research is still in the early stages, a number of pilot studies that focus on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness have highlighted some promising outcomes for patients with chronic pain. In one of these studies, conclusive results demonstrated an improved tolerance to discomfort, improved quality of life, and decreased reports of depression.1
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MRI scans show that the brain of a person practicing meditation has a significantly decreased pain reception.2 As a “formal” practice of mindfulness, meditation actually alters the way the brain perceives pain, such that it’s a bit more tolerable and bearable.3 This makes it a great natural way of easing the physical and emotional pain.
The concept of being mindful of pain sounds counter-intuitive. After all, you want to forget about the pain, escape from it, probably wishing there was a way to just get rid of it completely somehow. However, the main issue is, ironically, struggling to fight it off or even trying to ignore it creates a state of “resistance to what already is” within yourself, which results in stress.
With meditation, it’s possible to reach a content, emotional state of relative calm while in physical pain. It just requires a little practice. Many people have personally found this technique remarkably effective at managing pain and helping them cultivate inner peace and equilibrium.
Pain is actually high on the list of reasons why people turn to meditation. One study examined people suffering from postherpetic neuralgia, which is a complication of shingles. In most cases, shingles usually clear up in a matter of weeks, but the burning pain can last long after the blisters and rashes have disappeared.4
In the study, researchers divided the patients into two groups; one received the typical care, while the second group practiced meditation along with receiving the usual medical care. The pain score for the group that practiced meditation improved considerably, while the comparison group of patients who only received treatment reported deteriorating pain.
Meditation has also demonstrated effectiveness in helping people with addiction issues. Two weeks of meditation training, merely amounting to 5 hours in total, for a group of smokers in another study produced a 60% decrease in smoking, while the participants in a group that only practiced relaxation showed no decrease.5 Another recent study set out to evaluate mindfulness meditation as a form of treatment for patients after undergoing back surgery, to help in the development of safer approaches in the treatment of back pain than the conventional opioid medications. Traditionally, opioids are often prescribed to help in the pain management, but they bring some widely acknowledged side effects, fuelling an overdose and addiction epidemic.6 Much of this problem has been attributed to the lack of other alternative effective treatments.
In the experiment, 15 participants were subjected to varying levels of pain through heated probes as two separate points in times. Between these tests, they engaged in four, twenty-minute meditation training sessions. An MRI comparison of the before and after scans of the meditation training revealed substantial changes in a number of key regions brain, with a 40% reduction in the pain intensity and a 57% drop in the unpleasantness of pain.
These key regions of the brain include areas associated with sensory processing, high-level executive functioning, and contextual evaluations. This suggests that mindfulness meditation is an effective pain management alternative that relies on multiple neural mechanisms.
Techniques for Using Meditation for Pain Relief
Persistent pain can interfere with your everyday life, and even affect your quality of life. It’s difficult to have a positive outlook when you’re suffering from some form of pain. It can even undermine your self-confidence and make it hard to focus.
Meditation makes it possible to stay aware of what you’re experiencing in the present moment without having to reject or accept it. It also shows that everything changes, that even while experiencing chronic pain, there can be periods of physical and emotional well-being. When you start accepting, exploring, and working with the current situation, you’ll soon discover that part of the problem is that you want to escape it, which only causes more suffering. As the saying goes, “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.”
According to an article in Psychology Today, when it comes to chronic pain, there’s a direct link between negative thinking and the level of pain experienced.7 It’s typically a vicious cycle where the pain triggers negative self-talk and thoughts, which increases stress and muscle tension, and translates into feelings that coincide with suffering, ultimately amplifying the pain signals. Training in mindful meditation practices and acceptance strategies can really make a difference.
Meditation for pain management often involves techniques based on detached observation. Under these, physical pain is abstracted from the cognitive experiences of emotional and physical pain. Some studies suggest that meditation can effectively decrease or alleviate pain without resulting in any unwanted side effects.
Psychologist and meditation teacher Maria Camara, Ph.D., says that meditation is a powerful tool that allows us to accept the deepest emotions and let go. It also helps us gain a deeper understanding of our physical states, and identify the actions that cause us more pain so that we can avoid them mindfully when possible.
If you suffer from persistent pain, try the following meditation technique:
The Body Scan Mindful Meditation Technique
One of the most popular techniques for mindful-meditation pain management is called the body scan. It involves five steps and requires about 20 to 30 minutes to complete. With enough practice, this and other similar mindfulness techniques have been beneficial to people suffering from chronic pain.
Step 1: Preparing
The first step is to set yourself up for the practice. Choose a quiet, comfortable area where you can lie down. Of course, you don’t want to be distracted. Let people know not to disturb you during the entire meditation session. Turn your phone to silent or turn it off. You can even hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign at your door.
Step 2: Grounding
Once you’re comfortable, start turning your awareness to your body. Feel the parts of the body that are in contact with the surface you’re lying on. Notice the position that your body is in. examine your body mentally for the areas that have tension— the jaw, shoulders, stomach, etc. Try to consciously soften and release these areas of your body, so that you are totally relaxed.
Step 3: Awareness of the Present Moment
Next is making a conscious decision to let go of both the past and the future. Simply let go of your thoughts so that you’re left fully engaged with the present moment. Focus your awareness on your body and drop away everything else. Make the decision that no matter what you encounter while examining your body, you’re met with a sense of friendliness.
This basically means that you let whatever you encounter to be as is. Then aim to face it with equanimity, not to label or judge certain parts of the body, or even treating the painful parts as the enemy.
Step 4: The Body Scan
The fourth step entails performing the actual “scan” of the body. You ideally use your mind to scan or focus your attention on each part of your body, one at a time. You can start with one foot and focus all your attention on it. Feel into the whole foot. Notice any sensations of temperature changes. Notice any fabrics that are touching the skin or the point at which the air meets the skin. Welcome any form of sensations. Does it feel tired or heavy?
You simply want to be aware of the sensations that are there. Continue to scan and move your attention up one leg and then onto the other. Progress onto the back, torso, arms, neck, and the head, focusing on one part at a time.
Step 5: Complete Awareness of Your Whole Body
The final step is becoming aware of your entire body as a connected whole. Become aware of your entire physical body and maintain this awareness for a couple of minutes. Feel your body from within, taking care not to lose your focus on staying fully present. You don’t need to think about your body, just feel it.
Most people who’ve used the body scan meditation technique report that it worked very well for them. They agree that their ability to tolerate pain improves, which in turn improves the quality of their life. The technique has a great side benefit of alleviating much of the emotional and mental strain often associated with chronic pain. And it does all this without any negative side effects or risks.
Walking Meditation Technique
Walking meditation can be an effective way of managing ongoing pain. While walking, simply focus your attention on the movement of your legs and feet, or on the sensation of your feet stepping the ground, one in front of the other.
Become aware of your body as it moves through space. You can also concentrate on other sensations and body movements, such as the swinging of your arms as you walk. Be aware of the different sensations all around your body. A lot of hidden emotions and feelings can come to light when you follow this simple technique.
Investigate any pain you’re feeling as if for the first time. Notice how the pain feels at the moment. The more curious you are about the actual sensation, the less worried you will be about the “what ifs” that can lead to more suffering. If you like walking meditation, it’s wise to make it a regular practice. Over time, you will train your brain to respond to pain this way, while still benefiting from the walking exercise.
This is one of the best techniques for people suffering from chronic pain. Mindfulness is all about awareness and an unconditional acceptance of everything being experienced in the present. Mindful meditation begins with watching the breath, and it can be applied to regular habits or activities, such as showering, brushing, or even eating. The practice works by refreshing the mind, developing your ability to focus, and pacifying negative thoughts.
What to Expect
During and after the meditation session, you will feel a bit calmer and relaxed, along with an improvement in mood. Your pain is most likely going to be less noticeable, less upsetting, and much easier to tolerate.
With continued practice, you will become better at meditating, and much easier to enter a focused, relaxed state of mind. In fact, within a few days, you might start noticing improvements in your memory, concentration, coping, and sleep.
At a higher skill level, you’ll develop the ability to alleviate pain through meditation.8 Mindful meditation not only lets you experience reduced pain but also become happier and improve the overall quality of your life.
As a part of our Apothecary line, the Relieve personal essential oil diffuser is a great supplement to meditation, especially if you are meditating for pain relief purposes. The ingredients in this blend work together to help ease the discomfort of various aches and pains throughout the body. Check out this blend or others, such as Zen, to help center you during your meditation sessions.