Pain is an unpleasant sensation that everyone feels at some point in their life. It comes from the activation of specialized sensory nerve cells, known as nociceptors. These cells and their receptors are found in clusters throughout your body and, when stimulated, send pain signals to your brain for processing. They’re activated by injury, inflammation, and other factors that threaten your body’s welfare and safety. In response, your brain sounds the alarm bells, and you feel discomfort.
Pain is a physical sensation but also a psychological one — your brain sees it as a warning sign that something is wrong, and that creates secondary fear that can be as uncomfortable as the pain itself. Most of us want to avoid this unpleasant sensation. Meditation is one tactic for dealing with pain, whether it be chronic pain from a health condition or acute pain from a sports injury.
Treating Pain Is a Challenge
Treating pain is challenging because various types of pain affect different areas of the body, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, you feel some pain only in one area, like a migraine headache or a toothache. Other types of pain can affect your entire body, like the generalized aches of fibromyalgia. In some cases, you might feel pain in an area distant from the site of injury. For example, someone having a heart attack may feel discomfort in their neck, jaw, or back. This is called referred pain.
Treating pain is challenging. The treatment plan often includes medications such as analgesics (including opioid drugs), anticonvulsants, anti-inflammatories, and in severe cases, neuroleptics (medications used to treat seizures) or surgery. Analgesic painkillers such as aspirin and acetaminophen are frequently used for mild to moderate pain while opiates such as morphine are reserved for severe pain that doesn’t respond to other treatments. But these treatments aren’t ideal.
The downside is pain medications have side effects and some, like opiates, are addictive. So, there’s a strong need to find better solutions for pain control. The best solution would be safe, effective, and free of side effects. Could meditation be a safer alternative for treating mild to moderate pain?
Meditation for Pain Relief
Treating pain with meditation is not a new practice. Pain has a stress component and meditation is calming, thereby reducing the perception of discomfort. It also eases tensions in muscles and joints that contribute to pain. But the benefits may go further than that.
Research shows meditation can alter processing in areas of the brain involved in attention, thereby shifting focus away from pain. One study found that trained meditators exhibited structural changes in their brains, with thickening in areas involved in pain processing and sensitivity. So, meditation may change the structure of certain brain regions involved in pain perception.
Meditation May Change How Pain Is Processed
When you experience chronic pain, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Your mind is so preoccupied with what you’re feeling that focusing on anything else is a challenge. Meditation changes pain processing in a way that makes your mind less aware of it. It can help you not only manage pain but also deal with the secondary stress and anxiety that goes with it.
That meditation may have a direct effect on pathways that carry pain information is intriguing. Combine this with the stress-relieving benefits of meditation and it’s easy to see the advantages of meditation over medication. With regular mediation, you become less emotionally invested in the pain, thereby reducing its control over you. By teaching acceptance and living in the moment, meditation increases acceptance of the pain.
What About Scientific Evidence that Meditation Reduces Pain?
Although there are few randomized clinical trials looking at the impact of meditation on pain, anecdotal evidence suggests meditation is beneficial for acute and chronic pain. One study of adults with chronic lower-back pain found that those who received mindfulness-based therapy experienced a greater reduction in back pain than those who got standard advice for their back discomfort. Their functionality also improved, and they were able to carry out their daily activities with less discomfort. In the study, cognitive-based therapy was also effective and showed similar benefits to mindfulness meditation. The goal of cognitive therapy is to change the way people think about pain.
Another study looked at the effects of brief mindfulness meditation on pain in 15 healthy participants. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the effects on the brain. In the study, they found greater activation of regions of the brain involved in sensory experience. They also found reduced activation of areas that give meaning to pain sensations. This suggests that meditation decouples the sensation of pain with the interpretation of that sensation.
So, even if meditation doesn’t take away the pain, it alters the perception of it, so you interpret pain as less debilitating, and it becomes more manageable. Just as meditation can help you handle stress; it can help you manage pain too. It’s an encouraging finding for people suffering from chronic pain.
The Bottom Line
Meditation shows promise for treating pain. One way it seems to work is by changing how you perceive pain and how you respond to it. Mindfulness meditation could be a lone treatment for mild to moderate pain also can be an add-on therapy for people with more severe chronic pain who still require medications. It may reduce the need for pain medications. Best of all, it has other benefits and lacks the negative side effects that pain medications do.
- Zeidan F, Vago DR. Mindfulness meditation-based pain relief: a mechanistic account. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):114-27. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13153. PMID: 27398643; PMCID: PMC4941786.
- Hilton L, Hempel S, Ewing BA, Apaydin E, Xenakis L, Newberry S, Colaiaco B, Maher AR, Shanman RM, Sorbero ME, Maglione MA. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Behav Med. 2017 Apr;51(2):199-213. doi: 10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2. PMID: 27658913; PMCID: PMC5368208.
- “Meditation: In Depth | NCCIH.” .nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth.
- Neurological Evidence of a Mind-Body Connection: Mindfulness and Pain Control. American Journal of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal. Published 2018. Accessed August 12, 2022. https://psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp-rj.2018.130401
- “Mindfulness meditation to control pain – Harvard Health.” 15 Jun. 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/mindfulness-meditation-to-control-pain.
- “Meditation for Pain Relief: What to Know & How to Try It – Healthline.” 04 Sept. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/meditation-for-chronic-pain.
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