Meditation for Chronic Pain

Countless studies indicate that meditation can be a boon for people who live with chronic pain. Mindfulness meditation offers the practitioner a choice of where to direct a patient’s mental attention. This method of dealing with pain complements standard medical treatment by diminishing negative psychological responses to pain and assisting the patient with intentionally influencing his or her experience of pain.





What is Meditation?

Meditation is a strongly focused form of thought that leads to a state of deep reflection or awareness. Western forms of meditation focus the mind on a single thought, which relaxes and calms the mind. Eastern styles of meditation concentrate on “non-thought,” the cessation of thinking.

How Does Meditation Address Chronic Pain?

According to Herbert Benson, MD, of Harvard Medical School, meditation creates the exact opposite physiological state of what the human stress response produces. Those who meditate experience decreased blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen consumption, along with increased intensity of alpha, theta, and delta brainwaves. This indicates that meditation can reduce the stress caused by chronic pain and can improve overall mood levels.

Controlling Chronic Pain in Thoughts

Anyone living with chronic pain knows well the experience of out-of-control feelings. The mind seems to be held hostage and feeds on habitual, negative, fragmented, and chaotic thoughts as a reaction to constant pain. These thoughts do not perpetuate anyone’s well-being.

Since meditation involves focused attention, concentration can be placed upon the pain itself. This creates a new awareness of the negative, habitual thoughts that can overcome the quality of life. A shift then occurs as the practitioner realizes he or she has a choice: to either continue allowing these habitual responses or move toward a choice of how to pay attention to and respond to the pain sensations.

How to Practice Meditation for Chronic Pain

First, find a restful position that is safe and offers the least amount of pain. Then, put forth the intention to relax by asking your body to calm down. Take some slow, deep breaths if you are able.

Next, focus attention on the areas of your body that hurt. As you concentrate, take note of your thoughts as they race through your mind. Listen to these thoughts, and see if you can discover a connection between the thoughts and the pain. Realize that the thoughts and the pain are two separate entities.

Meditation with chronic pain is not designed to eliminate the pain, but rather to help the practitioner learn to accept whatever is happening in the present moment. If you are experiencing a lot of pain right now, accept this as your reality. Use your mind as a zoom lens to move in and feel the pain, as it exists right now. Then zoom out to simply observe the pain. Again, shift your attention even further out by focusing on something else unrelated to the pain, such as a good joke you might have recently heard. As you do so, observe how your breath changes with the change in focus. Watch how air moves in and out of your nose or mouth, and how it enters and exits your lungs.

Every time your mind wanders, notice your thoughts as you bring your attention gently back onto the pain. Become a detached observer only, trying to release any identification with the pain. While your body experiences sensations of pain, you are not your pain.

Again, shift your focus back to your breath, and note any feeling of ease or thoughts that soothe and heal. This exercise will enhance your coping skills by shifting how you give attention to the pain.

Scan the Body

Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD teaches a more specific technique called the Body Scan, which is a mental tour of one’s body. During the body scan, one’s attention moves from one part of the body to another to check in sequentially with how each body part feels at that moment. The goal is just to experience the sensations, not to judge or try to change them.

It starts with tuning in and relaxing the body as best you can. Then focus on the present moment, releasing thoughts about what just happened or what is going to happen. Meet your body with a friendly attitude.

The next step is to start at the toes of the left leg and notice what those toes are experiencing in that moment. Are they cold? Tingly? How does it feel to have the air or a sock surrounding them?

When you are done experiencing the toes, move to the next body part, such as the instep, then the ankle, then the calf, and so on. After completing the left leg, shift to the right leg, and ease up the body, moving toward the head.

Finish by feeling the body as an interconnected whole, and then on your skin surrounding it. Experience your whole body in that moment.

With sufficient practice, people with chronic pain can learn to shift their focus when needed and change their perception of the pain, developing an ability to choose how to respond to the pain.

Studies on Meditation for Chronic Pain

Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, who established the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts in 1995, has conducted numerous programs for chronic pain patients that involved meditation, yoga, and relaxation. His findings indicate that four years after completing an eight-week meditation training course, practitioners still were able to reduce chronic pain by more than 50 percent.

A study conducted by Patrick Randolph, Ph.D., at Texas Tech University, found that meditation in conjunction with traditional medicine enhances the effectiveness of Western conventional treatment. His stress-reduction program, combined with medical treatment, resulted in 85.5 percent of participants reporting an improvement in their ability to manage the pain.

Additional Resources

Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts.

Dorian, J.S. 365 Meditations for Transcending Chronic Pain and Illness.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon, MD. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness.

American Pain Foundation provides additional information on Mediation for Pain.

An abstract of a study on meditation for patients with chronic pain conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Additional information on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn is available on NPR.org.

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