Category Archives: Meditation For Chronic Pain Relief

Creating a Meditation Practice at Home for Chronic Pain Relief

Person sitting in lotus position on carpet and meditating

In past posts in this series on Meditation for Chronic Pain, we looked at the mechanisms behind meditation’s effectiveness as a component of a comprehensive treatment plan, as well as how to meditate. What’s next?

Well, if you’re ready to incorporate a mindfulness meditation practice into your regular chronic pain treatment program, you’ll want to set up a home meditation practice and develop it into a regular, consistent routine. This post will help you do just that.

Use this handy getting-started guide to create your own home meditation practice, then browse the collected links at the end of this article to explore the world of meditation in all its many lovely forms.

Creating an Environment That Enriches Your Home Meditation Practice Your Surroundings

The best thing you can do to support a regular home meditation practice is to find – or create – the perfect space for it.

While you can meditate just about anywhere (even walking around your neighborhood), using a dedicated space will help you reinforce the habit of meditation – and the more consistently you meditate, the better your results will be in terms of pain management.

Here are some tips to get the different aspects of your meditation environment just right.

Props and Clothing

First and foremost, you should avoid any clothing that is uncomfortable in any way — tight, restrictive, itchy, not warm enough for the environment you’ll be sitting in, or too warm for the environment you’ll be sitting in.

Some suggestions on clothing:

  • Loose fitting tops without scratchy tags
  • Leggings
  • Yoga pants
  • Sweatpants

Generally, just keep it comfy, and with no distracting ornamentation or skin-irritating fabrics or threads.

As for props, you might find yourself in need of some assistance to maintain a good meditation position for any length of time and make it more comfortable for you. Bolsters and pillows can help you support aching body parts, while soft, natural-fiber blankets can help keep you warm.

Finally, think carefully about whether you want to add candles and incense. On the plus side, invoking/involving a variety of senses can help improve your meditation experience. But if you’re just going to sit there and be distracted by whether the candle might catch something on fire or whether incense ash is falling on your fine furniture, then skip them.

Distractions

If comfort is the number one rule of a home meditation practice, distractions are the number one no-no. So, when it’s time to meditate for the day, do yourself a favor and …

  • Turn off all phones and televisions.
  • Let your family/roommates know you’re not to be disturbed (if this isn’t possible, see the next suggestion for some timing suggestions to make sure you won’t be interrupted).
  • Put pets outside or in another room.
  • Be aware of outside sounds — if you know the road crew is going to start up at 8 AM on the dot, meditate at 7:30 instead. Sounds that we are accustomed to during our normal daily routines can become very distracting during meditation.

Using the Power of Habit to Reinforce Your Daily Meditation Schedule

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” William James wrote that in 1892 and it’s every bit as true today as it was in his time or hundreds or thousands of years before that.

Habit is a force that, once grooved into our neurological pathways, compels us forward in ways that can be either good, constructive, healthful, beneficial — or bad, destructive, dangerous.

Knowing that fact gives us a super power of sorts, though. By harnessing the power of habit, we can create some pretty incredible changes in our lives with relatively little fuss or drama.

This works well when you’re starting a healthy new habit, such as a regular meditation practice.

The key is consistency, and commitment for the short haul — roughly 21 days. That’s just three weeks you’ll have to power through your new routine – but after that point, your meditation practice becomes a habit.

For more on using habit to create positive change, check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

Scheduling and Frequency

For best results, aim to meditate every day, even from the beginning. It’s better to meditate for ten minutes daily than for an hour every few days, when you’re trying to establish a regular practice for chronic pain treatment purposes.

Morning sessions, in my experience, are more beneficial than sessions later in the day. But if the only time you can establish a regular meditation habit is after dinner, or before bedtime, or during your lunch break, then by all means do that.

Aim to meditate at roughly the same time and in the same place every day. This will help you develop the meditation “habit” more easily.

Length of Session

In the beginning, if you don’t have any significant experience with regular meditation, aim for short sessions of ten to fifteen minutes.

Then, as you become more adept at the practice, try to extend your sessions in short increments — say, from fifteen minutes to eighteen minutes.

Finally, don’t commit yourself to long, thirty-minutes-plus sessions in the beginning. Meditation is a skill and like any skill, it takes some practice to become adept at it. It also requires some physical adjustment, as our bodies aren’t used to sitting still and awake for long periods of time.

So go easy on yourself, and set yourself up for success, rather than failure.

Some More Helpful Links on Establishing a Regular Meditation Practice & Mindfulness Meditation in General

In the interest of keeping it non-threatening and non-overwhelming for beginners, I’ve pared down the list of resources offered here to just a handful of recommendations in each category.

Bear in mind, this is but a tiny fraction of what’s available out there — much of it excellent, some of it questionable, and a small percentage possibly even harmful. The resources here are ones I’m personally familiar with, and will definitely get you started. As with any component of your chronic pain treatment plan, exercise your own good judgment, and talk with your doctor about any specific concerns.

From there, follow your interests and ask others (or me) for recommendations!

Websites and Links on Meditation

There are a vast number of resources available on the web that can help you learn how to meditate and expand your meditation practice. Here are just a few that I particularly like or thought might be helpful:

Books on Mindfulness Meditation

You may find these books useful:

Videos & CDs on Mindfulness Meditation

Jon Kabat-Zinn,  a leading mindfulness meditation researcher, has produced a few recorded guided meditation series (series 1 here, and series 3 here) that are available on Amazon. Guided meditation recordings can be very useful for beginners who aren’t really sure whether they’re “doing it right” and just as helpful for experienced meditators who want to explore new forms of meditation.

Finally, you might enjoy this short presentation on mindfulness meditation presented by Kabat-Zinn for Google employees.

Photo Credit: Loving Earth via photopin cc

Woman Meditating Against a Globe Backdrop

Meditation 101 for Chronic Pain Management

In previous posts, we looked at whether meditation works to relieve chronic pain as well as the science behind meditation’s efficacy as a pain treatment option. In this post, we’ll look at some simple ways to implement a meditation practice into your own pain treatment program.

Woman Meditating Against a Globe BackdropMeditation: How New Age Do You Want to Go?

You may well be relieved to discover that when it comes to meditation, there’s absolutely no need to go the whole “crystals, rainbows, unicorns” New Age route. I mean, you can, if you want to, but you don’t have to.

Personally, I find a few well-placed props that help set the mood to be a welcome addition. Soy candles and the occasional incense stick or powder in a darkened room with a little spa-type music playing in the background help my way-too-active  consciousness let go of its death-like grip on controlling my life and embrace relaxation.

Do be careful about using incense, though, especially if your respiratory system is in any way compromised.

But if that makes you uncomfortable, or merely roll your eyes mightily, then rest assured: no New Age props are required. Neither is chanting “Om” or anything else.

Meditation is simply the act of focusing your thoughts, or alternatively letting go of the need to obsess — the act of utter relaxation, tuning in to your body and mind, and allowing yourself simply to be in the moment. Sometimes props help with that, but if you find yourself uncomfortable at the thought of all the trappings, then don’t go that route. Just wear comfortable clothing, unplug the phone (and turn off the cell), get quiet and sit.

How to Meditate

Meditation is not some weird, scary thing. It’s something you already know how to do, but in a possibly new context.

You can meditate in any number of ways:

  • Visualizing some desired outcome or a peaceful natural setting
  • Counting your breaths
  • Focusing mentally on one phrase or word
  • Simply sitting and allowing your thoughts to float away like butterflies

There are also more advanced techniques you can pick up from traditions like yoga or Transcendental Meditation, or other practices. But for our purposes, we’re going to outline a simple breath-focused practice that I use to help manage my pain.

What You’ll Need to Get Started

  • Comfortable clothing
  • A comfy place to sit that supports your back (lying down isn’t advisable, at least at first, as it can signal the body it’s time to sleep — and since chronic pain patients are often sleep-deprived, this will be counterproductive to meditating; however, you can practice a form of this meditation lying down in bed before you sleep, and it should improve the quality of your rest)
  • Silence — no interruptions of the human or electronic kind
  • If you like, you can use New Age or spa background music. I advise against candles at first – you might find yourself worried about a fire starting, especially with your eyes closed

The Practice

Get comfortable – either cross-legged, perhaps with pillows supporting your knees, or with your feet on the floor. Cover yourself with a blanket if you’re the least bit cool. Place your hands in your lap, palms up, left hand on top of the right, so that your hands are basically right in front of your pelvis.

Close your eyes, and:

  1. Phase One: Breathe. Just breathe. In and out, without trying to control the breath. Turn your awareness to your scalp, and check in with your body there. How does it feel? Don’t try to change it, just observe. Then slowly scan your body, moving from the scalp to the forehead, to the eyes, the chin, the neck, the shoulders, etc. – all the way down to your toes. This doesn’t have to take a long time — just check in briefly, observe, and move on.
  2. Phase Two: Focus on the Hurting Parts. Find the part that hurts the most from your body scan in Phase One. Settle your awareness on this spot. Talk to it silently — not the way you usually do (“God, I hate you! Why do you HURT all the time?!”) but as if that body part were a small child in pain. What would you say to that child? You wouldn’t tell her you hate her! You’d comfort her. You’d tell her how much you love her. You’d say how sorry you are that she hurts. You’d tell her how proud of her you are. So say that to your in-pain body part. Offer it love and compassion.
  3. Phase Three: Rinse, Repeat. Do the same for any other intensely pained parts of your body.
  4. Phase Four: Envision Health. Now, bring your awareness back to the center of your self — somewhere around your solar plexus, usually, but wherever feels “right” to you. Allow an image of perfect health — your perfect health — to come to mind. See yourself doing the things you long to do, feeling great, moving easily. Try to bring as much sensory awareness into it as possible — not just sight but scents, the sensation of touch, sounds, tastes. Make it as real as you can. Stay with this image for as long as you can, up to ten minutes or so. When you’re ready, imagine that scene in your mind being enveloped in a glowing golden-pink bubble, and floating up to the universe where it will start to gather energy and begin to manifest. (Or if that’s too “whoo-whoo” for you, then just let it fade.)
  5. Phase Five: Coming Out. Don’t rush the re-entry! Once you’ve let go of the vision of health, slowly bring your awareness to what’s going on around you — but don’t open your eyes just yet. Take a minute or two to become aware of your surroundings. Then slowly open your eyes. You might find it helpful to shake your hands vigorously for a few seconds to ground yourself again. Drink some water, get up and move around — basically, reconnect to your body.

That’s it.

This practice can take as little as ten minutes or as much as an hour – it’s totally up to you. Better to do it for a few minutes every day, than for an hour once a week, though. Set your schedule, ease into it if you must, but try to do it daily.

The Benefits

What can you expect from a regular meditation practice? It varies from person to person, of course, because we’re all different, but basically you can expect:

  • Heightened sense of connection to your body
  • Lessened pain
  • More restorative sleep
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased ability to deal with flareups of pain and stress

That’s worth giving meditation a good trial run, isn’t it?

Photo Credit: AlicePopkorn via photopin cc

Carved stone Buddha sitting in meditation

How Meditation Relieves Chronic Pain

In order to understand the process by which meditation works to improve our experiences with chronic pain, we should examine the evidence supporting the premise itself. In short: how do we know that meditation works at all?

Carved stone Buddha sitting in meditationStudies Establish Meditation’s Effectiveness in Chronic Pain Management

Numerous studies have consistently found the same thing: meditation works on chronic pain — not just in our emotional reaction to it, but also the pain itself.

One study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience (Feb. 2008), found that chronic back pain patients demonstrated an always-active area in the frontal cortex associated with emotion, whereas healthy brains (in healthy non-pained patients) show those areas “go dark” from time to time. As columnist Jackie Gingrich Cushman notes in this article, meditation can help train the brain over time to “take a break,” as it were.

A Canadian physician found in one study that meditation of 10 to 20 minutes a day, over a period of ten weeks, significantly helped many patients to manage their pain. One participant, whose pain was so intense that she’d even considered suicide, noted she was “shocked” at how significant the impact on her pain was. (You can read more about the mindfulness method developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn which was used in the Canadian study here at NPR.)

In fact, Kabat-Zinn is somewhat of a pioneer in this area of study. His own studies served as the catalyst for many subsequent researchers. The abstract from one of those studies is here at his site, Wild Mind.

Another fibromyalgia study, this one conducted in Switzerland at the University of Basel Hospital, showed that a mindfulness meditation program yielded several key benefits in patients, including pain-induced suffering, anxiety, and depression. A follow-up three years showed continued benefits for those who stayed with the process.

Studies have also shown that a relaxed mind, one of the major benefits of meditation, is more capable of remembering and processing information, which might help alleviate that fibro fog and similar fuzzy states of mind we all hate so much.

The Mechanism Behind Mindfulness Meditation’s Impact on Chronic Pain

To get to the “whys” and “wherefores” we should review what happens in a normal pain response in a healthy individual:

  1. A painful stimulus is applied — be it a hand on a hot stove or an injury in a car wreck;
  2. The nervous system sends the “IM” as it were to command central: “Injury: Possible Pain Ahead”
  3. The brain then acts like a relay station of sorts. It sends out the message, much like a PA system, to what’s been called “the pain matrix” — an association of brain areas responsible for different functions that, collectively, help us process and learn from the experience (more on this below)
  4. Those areas jump into action, sending the signal to the rest of the body to either stop interacting with the painful stimulus (“take your hand off the stove, idiot!”) or prepare for biophysical stress (“this is gonna hurt”)
  5. The brain’s various structures then learn from the experience thanks to a characteristic known as neuroplasticity.

To get to the heart of how meditation works, we need to focus on steps 3 and 4 — the sending of the signal to the pain matrix, and the various commands that then issue from the brain to the rest of the body in response.

The Functions of the Pain Matrix

In step 3, the PA message goes out to the pain matrix, which consists of those areas of the brain with the following functions:

  • Turning the signal into a physical pain sensation — so you become aware of all this stuff (that’s happening at lightning speeds, of course — much too fast to discern separately)
  • Keeping track of goals and conflict — so you can start to solve the problem of how to make this unpleasant experience better
  • Processing emotions, thereby triggering fear and anger — so you become motivated to protect yourself

That last one, in particular, is important. It’s easy to look at this process and say “well, the emotional stuff, it should just go away. Who needs to feel such negative emotions all the time?” But in fact that’s a crucial part of the healthy pain response! Without it, you’d likely just keep doing the same thing over and over, because it wouldn’t have become something you desire to avoid.

Now, that’s a healthy response. But in chronic pain, the response gets all screwed up. Those hormones that flood our body in step 4, preparing us to “fight or flee”, don’t dissipate like they should. The emotional response continues longer than it would otherwise. In short, we get stuck in this cycle. Like the Energizer bunny — it all just keeps going and going and going …

What meditation does is akin to short-circuiting that cycle.  It breaks the emotional response (which only serves to amp up our suffering). It calms the biochemical stress response. It allows us to experience the pain without suffering through it.

My personal experience with this phenomenon tells me that the benefits are not only immediate but also cumulative. That is, you get an initial improvement in your well-being, sure — but over time, those benefits add up.

Now, when I go into a flare now (and of course, it still happens) my meditation practice has now retrained my brain to approach the experience with equanimity:

  • I don’t get upset.
  • I don’t feel nauseated afterwards (which is due to the overflow of adrenaline that’s produced in the pain response).
  • I don’t feel that rage and debilitating fear that grips so many of us — and used to grip me tight, to be sure.

Want to Know More?

In a few days, I’ll share some solid tips and tools on how to implement a meditation practice, even if you’ve never meditated before.

If you want the full New Agey “whoo-whoo” experience, I’ll give you some suggestions to bliss out with the incense for the whole experience. If you’d rather keep it simple, I can help you there, too. No matter what your preferences, there is a meditation practice that’s right for you, and it will help you feel better. I promise.

Do you meditate? How has your experience with your chronic pain changed as a result of the meditation practice? Share your stories with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: kattebelletje via photopin cc

Woman in White Meditating Outside

Does Meditation Work to Relieve Chronic Pain?

In this series of posts we’re going to examine meditation in detail — what it is, how it helps, why it works, and how to do it.

Woman in White Meditating Outside

No, It’s Not “All in Your Head” … But Quieting Your Mind Can Help

For a lot of us, any suggestion of remedy that even sniffs of “it’s all in your head” is automatically suspect. For some of us, meditation falls into that category.

Look, I’m as anti-head-caser as anyone (being a fibromite, it comes with the territory) but I’m here to tell you: this meditation stuff works.

Let me make this point clear, though: I’m no guru. I hate the word and think it’s overused both as an honorific and as a criticism.  What I am is someone who’s tried a lot of coping mechanisms and treatment options – someone with a pretty clear understanding of which of those options worked for me and which didn’t.

I’ve also done a fair bit of (OK, extensive) study on the subject, and while there’s absolutely no treatment for chronic pain that will work across the board — even for a particular illness — it seems that more and more evidence is piling up that meditation works. Specifically, it helps someone in pain cope with the pain by removing the suffering component. For me, it also goes beyond that and actually helps reduce the pain.

The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

First, we need to establish what we mean when we say “pain” and “suffering.” Interestingly tidbit: I used to be a lawyer, as most readers know. In preparing a complaint (the document that starts a lawsuit) for personal injury, lawyers will frequently use the phrase “pain and suffering.” Some of us in first-year torts class in law school wondered why use both? We chalked it up to typical lawyer-speak.

Fact is, though, they aren’t the same thing at all. The lawyers were right!

Pain is the unpleasant sensory perception we’re all too familiar with. It’s the biochemical response to certain stimuli — or, in our cases, the mere state of being alive with a chronic pain condition.

Suffering, however, is something very different. While pain is a physical phenomenon, suffering is entirely emotional and mental. It does, in fact, lie completely in your mind.  Suffering, put simply, is the emotional resistance to the pain that we throw up, consciously or subconsciously, and it’s usually based on fear or anger, or both.

Suffering is what makes us think:

  • Why me?!
  • This will NEVER go away.
  • I’ll feel like this until the day I die.
  • What the hell is WRONG with me?!
  • OhGodohGodohGodohGod…

You get the drift.

There’s one more key difference: pain is a fact of life for the chronically pained. Suffering, however, is completely optional.

The Impact of Meditation on Suffering

Meditation works to relieve the suffering component of the chronic pain experience in several ways.

  1. It quiets the mind.
  2. It brings you out of the future-based fear you’re experiencing and grounds you back in the present.
  3. It reduces the physical stress caused by the experience of pain.
  4. It steadies and slows your breathing, which further reduces physical stress.
  5. It fosters a stronger sense of well-being.
  6. It moves you gently out of the “freak-out” mode into a more objective perspective.
  7. It improves your mood.

Why There’s No Contradiction Between Meditation’s Effectiveness and the Biological Reality of Chronic Pain

So, this is the part of the post where I tell you why those jerks who insist that it’s all in your mind are still bone-crushingly wrong and meditation works, anyway, and these two things are not the contradiction that they might appear to be initially.

Let’s say it again, just to make it clear: it is not all in your head.  But meditation can help you reduce the suffering that accompanies your pain. And that can make it all just a little bit easier to bear.

This is true because — again — there’s a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is the biological response; suffering is the entirely emotional/mental response that accompanies the pain.

In future posts, we’ll look at how to start a meditating practice for chronic pain relief.

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