Tag Archives: chronic pain relief

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

A Summertime Meditation to Relieve Chronic Pain

Here’s a simple little meditation that’s incredibly powerful at helping your body release chronic pain and heal itself. It draws on the power of two of summer’s most iconic elements: the sun’s rays and the ocean’s waves.

Why Meditation Coupled With Visualization Works To Relieve Chronic Pain

Many of us resist the advice to meditate when it comes to managing our chronic pain. Yet meditation can have profoundly beneficial physical effects when it comes to our body’s ability to heal itself. When you couple meditation with visualization — the practice of envisioning certain scenes or images — you can ramp up the healing power of meditation.

Why do we resist meditation? I think it’s because it “smells” like “it’s all in your head.” Yet the connection between the body and mind is just beginning to be understood in Western medicine. Studies have shown that our brains’ entrenched beliefs can and do have powerful impacts on our health; witness the many studies that show placebos often work, even if they’re nothing more than sugar pills.

Meditation works on so many levels. First, it relaxes your body physically. Especially with fibromyalgia, our muscles have “memories” that bring them back to a painfully tense state time and again. Meditation can retrain those muscles over time to relax, which can ease the pain levels tremendously. Secondly, it works to reduce overall physical stress levels, lowering the amounts of hormones that in large quantities wreak havoc with our body’s systems. Finally, it feels good — and we can all us as much of that as we can get.

Preparing to Meditate

You need no special training or equipment to meditate. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing (except driving a car!), you can meditate. But for the best results, try this meditation when you’re alone. You can be outside or inside, although outside would be very helpful for this particular meditation.

If you are lucky enough to have access to a beach, that’s ideal. But even if you can’t get to the ocean, you can bring the water’s healing powers to you, wherever you are. Look for a pool, or failing that, use a bathtub or even an indoor fountain.

Wear comfortable clothes (unless you’re in the pool or beach, in which case a swimsuit is best, or in the tub, in which case no clothing is necessary). Make sure you won’t be disturbed for half an hour or so.

If you’re using a tub, fill it with warm but not hot water. Add some Epsom or sea salt to the water, to make it as close to the real thing as possible. If you’re in a pool, float on your back if possible, or simply sit comfortably on a step in the shallow end, letting the water cover your feet and ankles. At the beach? Anywhere will do, but if you can move your chair, or just sit on the sand, in the surf, that’s ideal.

Lastly, if you’re outside, make sure you put on sunblock! We’ll be working with the power of the sun to heal — but we all know the sun’s rays can be dangerous to unprotected skin, too. So, lather the white stuff on, and make sure you hit the areas that we always forget — the ears, the tops of feet and toes, the scalp.

Ready?

The Summer Sun-And-Waves Meditation

Begin by relaxing your body. Focus your awareness on each part of your body, starting with your toes, moving up to your feet, your ankles, your calves, and so on, until you reach the top of your head. At each point, pause and gently (silently) tell that part of your body to relax. Continue up your body until you reach the top of your head. Relax your eyes, your mouth, your forehead, your scalp.

When you’re thoroughly relaxed, focus on the sound of the waves coming in and going out. If you’re not actually at the beach, that’s OK — just call that sound to mind. (If you have a CD or sound machine that can recreate waves, great! If not, just use your imagination and memory.) Just focus on the waves for several minutes.

Now, turn your awareness to the warmth of the sun beating down on your body. Again, even if you’re not outside, it’s OK — just visualize the sun’s rays enveloping your body in warmth. See them in your mind’s eye as golden rays of pure healing energy.

Now, begin to direct those rays in your mind’s eye to the parts of your body that hurt. One at a time, “move” the rays of golden light to target a painful area. Let the rays do their job — visualize them sinking in (only the good parts, of course — the sunblock’s taking care of the bad stuff) and working magic on the tissue, the fascia, the very cells that make up your painful muscles. After awhile, you’ll feel a distinct tingle in each area. That’s your cue that you can move on to the next painful area.

When you’ve moved the sun’s rays over every painful area, and felt that little tingle in each one, now it’s time to move on to the water portion. Bring your attention gently back to the waves — listen to the sounds of the waves coming in and going out. Really listen — note every single nuance in sound between the coming and the going until you can hear each difference distinctly.

Now, imagine that the ocean’s waves are bringing in health and wellbeing, and then they’re picking up all the bad stuff in your body that causes pain as they take that bad stuff back out to sea. Way out there somewhere is a magic well where all the “bad stuff” is deposited and transformed into healthful energy. The waves pick up that energy and bring it back in to you, in a never-ending cycle of healing. Stay with this image for as long as you can, feeling the waves bring you health and vitality and take away your pain.

After ten or fifteen minutes or so (or however long you wish to perform the meditation, mindful always of the need to reapply sunblock if you’re outside), bring your attention slowly back to your body and your surroundings. Slowly stretch, blink a few times, and massage your hands and shoulders to bring yourself back to full waking consciousness. You might feel like you just dozed off for a bit — and if you did, that’s great! Sleep heals, too. (Just make sure you don’t fall asleep in the sun without someone to rouse you in case you sleep too long.)

I’d love to hear your reactions to this meditation. Did you try it? Do you use a meditation or visualization sequence that’s different? Share it in the comments!

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