As someone who has had frequent migraines for over eight years, I am all too familiar with pain that seems out of my control – pain that can keep me in bed all day, holding me back from being able to live my daily life. If you suffer from a chronic pain condition, you likely know the feeling of being controlled by your pain. But what if it could be the other way around? What if we had the power to change the way our brain processed and expressed pain? Meditation and mindfulness techniques can do just that; these strategies are becoming more widely used as effective back pain, headache, and fibromyalgia natural treatment strategies.
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Pain and the brain: how meditation can help
You might think that when you stub your toe, the pain that you feel comes from your toe. This seems like the logical explanation. But it turns out that pain is actually all in our heads; the perception of pain comes from the brain, not from the place that you feel the pain.
For people who experience chronic pain, this is good news, because we can alter the way the brain evaluates painful stimuli.[1,2] The brain has the ability to choose which stimuli to pay attention to and which to ignore. And we have access to a very powerful tool that can help us encourage the brain to turn down the perception of pain: meditation.
Studies show that when people meditate, brain activity in regions related to pain perception can be altered, and this can correspond to higher pain tolerance.[3,4] For example, after only four days of mindfulness meditation training, people who meditated while exposed to a painful stimuli showed a 40% reduction in pain rating and a 57% reduction in pain-unpleasantness compared to when they weren’t meditating.
What is mindfulness meditation?
While many forms of meditation can be helpful for controlling pain, the most effective seems to be mindfulness meditation. This type of meditation focuses on awareness of the present moment, with the intention of paying attention to moment-to-moment experiences without judgment.
Many chronic pain conditions respond particularly well to a structured, eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. In this type of program, a skilled practitioner trains participants in a group setting to bring awareness to sensations, movements, breaths, and thoughts that come and go in each moment. The goal is to simply notice, not to react, to these experiences.
Meditation helps reduce pain in a variety of chronic pain conditions
Meditation, particular mindfulness techniques, can lead to improvements in pain intensity when compared to standard care for many chronic pain patients. It also may help improve pain-related disability, pain acceptance, feelings of control over the pain, depression, anxiety, and quality of life, immediately after treatment as well as at follow up later on.[1,5] Some specific conditions that respond particularly well include:
- Low-back pain. An eight-week MBSR program significantly improved back pain in older patients, with sustained improvements even after a three-month follow up. The majority of patients decided to continue to practice mindfulness techniques after the study because they believe it benefited them substantially.
- Migraines. Pain levels for migraine patients can be improved with mindfulness meditation, as can quality of life, anxiety, and stress. A small study found that these techniques can improve the frequency and duration of headaches as well.
- Fibromyalgia. Mindfulness-based therapy can be an effective fibromyalgia natural treatment. Women participating in an MBSR program experienced significantly reduced symptom severity, as well as reduced stress and sleep disturbances. Those who practiced the most at home in between sessions showed even further symptom reduction.
Try meditation and mindfulness techniques for yourself
Along with helping reduce pain, meditation and mindfulness can help boost the immune system, treat depression, and more. In its simplest form, a meditation practice can be five minutes a day of sitting quietly and breathing deeply. But if you are really struggling with chronic pain symptoms, finding a way to incorporate a more involved practice into your daily routine could benefit you tremendously. Try finding meditation classes near you, and try out different types to see what suits you. Or, search for an MBSR program, where you will learn the tools necessary to practice mindfulness techniques on your own to keep your pain under control.
Share your experience
Do you suffer from chronic pain? Have you ever tried mediation or mindfulness techniques to control your pain? Share your tips for more low back pain, headache, or fibromyalgia natural treatment options in the comments section below.