We all know someone who lives in chronic pain. They’ve tried every type of painkiller, visited several doctors and tested the waters with different therapies, but the pain just doesn’t let up. Maybe that person is even you.
The reality is that this type of situation is far too common – approximately 1 in 10 adults in North America experience persistent pain that can be a source of daily frustration, and for some can be downright debilitating. What makes chronic pain more difficult to treat than acute pain is that it can’t be isolated to just the original tissue damage. Stress, the environment, and emotions are all factors that can enhance the intensity of the pain, and that are difficult to manage. (1)
The Missing Piece in Chronic Pain Management
As anyone in pain is well aware, the main therapeutic tool used for chronic pain management is medication – most commonly nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), corticosteroids, or opioids, such as morphine and oxycodone. While these medications can provide relief, there are many potentially damaging side-effects on a physical, mental, and emotional level that can arise.
According to Dr. John D. Loeser, an expert in the surgical treatment of pain and multidisciplinary pain management, chronic pain is extremely complex to treat as it is largely influenced by the perception of pain, which in turn influences the extent of suffering experienced and patient behaviours. (2) This is known as secondary pain.
Two types of pain: Primary and Secondary
Primary pain is the physical response to pain, whereas secondary pain is the emotional response to pain. As Dr. Danny Penman explains in an article of Psychology Today, primary pain is the raw information sent to the brain, whereas secondary pain is the mind’s reaction to the pain, which is controlled by an ‘amplifier’ that governs the intensity of suffering. Over time, the brain gets better at sensing pain, which can make it difficult to break free from this pattern. (3)
So, if the intensity of pain can be controlled by the mind’s reaction to pain, is it possible to train the mind to feel less pain? The answer is a resounding yes.
Meditation for Pain Relief – Changing our perception of pain
Research has found that meditation is an effective tool for ‘turning down the volume’ and reducing the amplification of pain. In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, Dr. Fadel Zeidan and his colleagues found that mindfulness meditation – when an individual focuses on their senses yet maintains awareness of transient thoughts – was able to achieve a resounding 40% reduction in pain intensity in contrast to non-meditation. (5)
Speaking to the idea of secondary pain, Zeiden explains that, “meditation teaches patients how to react to the pain. People are less inclined to have the ‘ouch’ reaction, and are able to control their emotional reaction to pain.” (2)
The majority of people are unable to distinguish between their physical pain and the negative thoughts and emotions that arise in response to pain. Furthermore, some research has shown that what ultimately affects a person’s degree of suffering is the severity of their reactions to their pain.
Rather than escaping pain, mindfulness practice helps to increase your capacity to bear it by helping to untangle the mix of pain and the adverse reactions to it (i.e. primary and secondary pain). As you gradually become increasingly familiar with your reactions to pain you also gain awareness that your thoughts and feelings come and go — just like how the symptoms of pain can wax and wane.
Helping to deepen this awareness without judgement helps the pain to only become one aspect of your experience and teach you that you are capable of overcoming it. So, although mindfulness alone can’t completely eliminate pain, it can help facilitate a different way of observing pain which reduces suffering by improving coping abilities.This perspective provides a new way to relate to distressing thoughts and emotions so they can be accepted as natural rather than avoided. In a similar way, individuals are encouraged to re-engage in previously avoided valued activities that may now be avoided due to pain. (4)
Interestingly, there’s another hypothesis behind the science of how meditation relieves pain. Back in 1975 there was a groundbreaking study that showed meditation reduced activity/arousal in the sympathetic nervous system – in other words, mediation helped reduce stress. The theory is that if baseline levels of stress are reduced using mindfulness, the overall perception of pain is reduced. Dr. Sonty, a psychologist who works with pain patients at Columbia University agrees — she has found success using visualization techniques with her clients to lower their stress levels and finds that this, in turn, dramatically reduces their pain perception. (2)
Regardless of which theory is correct, there is enough research at this point to show that meditation is an effective, non-invasive tool for pain relief that can have powerful results in improving quality of life for those living with pain.
How To Get Started with Meditation for Pain Relief
With the above in mind, two of the key insights we can gain when looking at mindfulness as a way to manage pain are:
- When you use mindfulness to help understand your personal response to pain, you can change the relationship you have to your pain and improve your ability to cope.
- On a more holistic note, mindfulness recognizes pain and helps you understand that there is more to life than your pain. By widening your perspective, you can engage more fully with the aspects of your life that give you pleasure.
According to Robert Bonakdar, M.D., director of pain management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego, the first step in practicing mindfulness is to face your pain and fully acknowledge its presence within you, rather than run from it. (6)
For people who are new to meditation, listening to a guided meditation for just 5-10 minutes per day can help provide the structure needed to get started. If you need a place to start, we recommend try the Muse app, which provides guided meditation starting at just 3 minutes per day – and unlike other apps – in combination with the Muse headband can measure your brainwave activity and act as your personal meditation assistant.
- Loeser, J. and Melzack, R. (1999). Pain: an overview. The Lancet, [online] 353(9164), pp.1607-1609. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673699013112 [Accessed 9 Mar. 2018].
- Steiner, B. (2018). Treating Chronic Pain With Meditation. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/04/treating-chronic-pain-with-meditation/284182/ [Accessed 9 Mar. 2018].
- Penman, D. (2009). Can Mindfulness Meditation Really Reduce Pain and Suffering?. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mindfulness-in-frantic-world/201501/can-mindfulness-meditation-really-reduce-pain-and-suffering [Accessed 9 Mar. 2018].
- McCracken LM, Gauntlett-Gilbert J, Vowles KE. The role of mindfulness in a contextual cognitive-behavioural analysis of chronic pain-related suffering and disability. Pain 2007;152:533-542.
- Zeidan F, Adler-Neal AL, Wells RE, et al. Mindfulness-meditation-based pain relief is not mediated by endogenous opioids. Journal of Neuroscience. 2016;36(11):3391-3397.
- Health.com. (2018). Meditation Can Release and Relieve Pain. [online] Available at: http://www.health.com/health/condition-article/0,,20189590,00.html [Accessed 9 Mar. 2018].