Mindfulness meditation has been around for thousands of years, but it’s seen a surge of new interest in the last decade. Much of this enthusiasm for mindfulness is thanks to the popularity of yoga, which often includes meditative practice. But beyond helping to promote feelings of relaxation or spiritual contentment, new research is suggesting that mindfulness meditation could be harnessed to help people with chronic pain.
What is chronic pain?
Pain is labelled “chronic” when it lasts more than 3 months. Chronic pain can be associated with an injury, a long-term illness, or may have no apparent cause. In addition to the negative physical sensations, chronic pain is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
How is chronic pain treated?
There are a variety of treatment options based on the origin and location of chronic pain. Some of the most common include:
- Opioids: These are effective painkillers, but patients can develop a tolerance that makes them problematic for long-term use. As highly addictive drugs, prescription opioid use is a major contributor to the current overdose epidemic.
- NSAIDs: Prescription and over-the-counter NSAIDs help to relieve pain and inflammation, and are frequently used to help manage arthritis pain.
- Steroids: For chronic pain associated with inflammation, oral or injectable steroids may be prescribed.
- Antidepressants: Even in patients who aren’t experiencing depression, anti-depressant drugs can help to reduce chronic pain due to arthritis, nerve pain, migraines, or fibromyalgia.
- Radiofrequency ablation: This treatment uses a radiofrequency current to heat up and destroy the nerves that send pain signals, and can provide long-term relief for people suffering from spondylosis or nerve pain.
Chronic pain and the brain
Chronic pain not only lasts longer than acute pain, but it also appears to be processed differently in the brain.
A 2013 report from Northwestern University made interesting discoveries during a study of people with acute and chronic pain. Subjects experiencing back pain for less than 3 months showed brain activity in the areas that are generally accepted to be involved in acute pain. But those with back pain for more than 10 years showed brain activity in parts of the brain that are believed to control emotion. Researchers followed up with the acute patients, and those who still had pain one year later showed a change in their scans, with brain activity now in the “emotional” centers.
The idea that chronic pain comes from a different part of the brain could explain why it’s so difficult to treat, and also why depression and anxiety often come along with long-term pain.
What is mindfulness meditation?
There are many types of meditation, some of which are rooted in a specific spiritual practice. Mindfulness is part of Buddhist teachings, but can be practiced without any religious affiliation. The main emphasis of mindfulness meditation is awareness of the present moment. Practice usually involves paying attention to physical sensations in the body, like the breath, instead of ruminating thoughts or internal dialogue.
Mindfulness Meditation and Chronic Pain
Chronic pain appears to be processed differently by the brain. There’s a growing body of research that suggests mindfulness meditation might also involve changes in the brain. With medical imaging technology, researchers have been able to get new information as to how the brain responds to meditation and pain.
- People who are considered mindfulness experts or advanced meditators report feeling less pain even when they aren’t in a meditative state.
- Rather than “blocking” the areas of the brain associated with pain, the brain of a mindfulness expert seems to disconnect physical pain from the thought processes that can amplify it.
- MRI scans have revealed that 8 weeks of mindfulness practice appears to shrink the amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” center.
- In a 2015 study, mindfulness meditation was found to be more effective than placebos at reducing how participants rated the intensity and unpleasantness of painful stimuli. Brain scans revealed that mindfulness meditation deactivated the thalamus, which acts like the brain’s gateway for sensory information.
Problems with Mindfulness Studies
- A 2016 review of studies examining mindfulness meditation and chronic pain concluded that mindfulness appears to improve pain and depression. But more randomized controlled studies are needed to determine exactly how the practice can help people with chronic pain.
- The ways that being a mindfulness expert can change the brain may not be helpful when dealing with older people who are already in chronic pain.
- Studies that prove mindfulness meditation can reduce the intensity of acute pain may not necessarily translate to reduction in chronic pain.
- Funding for mindfulness meditation research is limited. Unlike studies involving drug trials, meditation isn’t a product that can be repeatedly sold to patients.
Practicing mindfulness medication is relatively low risk. People with mental illness, PTSD, or a history of psychosis should proceed with caution and consult a psychiatric care provider. Here are some tips for getting started:
- Find a teacher. It’s certainly possible to begin a mindfulness practice on your own, but attending a class or workshop with a teacher can help provide beginners with a solid introduction. It also gives the opportunity to ask questions about what you experience and talk to other people about the process.
- Set goals. Research hasn’t identified if meditation needs to happen for a specific length of time to be effective in treating chronic pain, but setting goals for your practice can help to develop it as a habit.
- Start slow. Begin with small, reasonable goals that make meditation easy to fit into your schedule. As you become more comfortable with the process, you’ll probably find yourself naturally meditating for longer.
Mindfulness meditation may not replace the need for prescription drugs, but it can be a useful complementary treatment for those who struggle daily with pain. If this practice really does have the power to change the structure of our brains, it may be to everyone’s advantage to start practicing mindfulness before they develop a chronic medical condition.
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DISCLAIMER: The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.