The Science Behind Mindfulness And Pain

We have an epidemic of pain and pills in this country. People who struggle with chronic pain have been given pills for years, only to become dependent and see their pain issues worsen as their brain chemistry shifts to accommodate the medication.

But what if pills and chemicals weren’t the only options to manage pain? More and more studies are examining the relationship between pain and mindfulness, including how mindfulness meditation could mitigate pain, in a different and more effective way than the placebo effect, as outlined below.

Pain is subjective. It is a sensory and emotional experience that can be influenced by countless factors, ranging from expectations to mood or even faith. Chronic pain can be highly despairing and significantly affect one’s quality of life and emotional state. The currently available analgesic treatments don’t always work, and pain researchers keep searching for more effective options for pain management.

In the last decades, there have been many studies proposing that mindfulness meditation can reduce pain and improve health, both in experimental and in clinical contexts.

Mindfulness meditation is a cognitive practice that involves paying full attention to whatever internal and external experiences are occurring in the present moment, as you experience them. It is a technique that combines focused attention on breathing with objective non-judgmental acceptance of arising thoughts and sensations.

This means accepting an experience with an even mind, not judging it as good or bad.

One of the main doubts regarding the analgesic effect of mindfulness meditation has been how exactly it happens. It could be argued that mindfulness meditation could simply reduce pain through a placebo-like effect, or due to the context of participating in a meditation intervention, including expectations, shifted attention, the setting, body posture, breathing, or other processes associated with the simple awareness or belief that one is practicing meditation.

Recent research

In 2015, The Journal of Neuroscience published a study whose goal was to precisely determine whether or not the neuronal mechanisms of mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief were similar to those of placebo analgesia, or if they were due to contextual influences.

The study combined different approaches, including psychophysical, physiological, and brain imaging methods, to test the hypothesis that mindfulness meditation reduces pain by activating specific neurological mechanisms, different from those of placebo analgesia. Given the impact that the context of a meditation intervention can have on pain perception, as mentioned above, the study also compared the effect of active mindfulness meditation with a sham mindfulness meditation technique – one that would lead the participants to believe that they were practicing mindfulness meditation, but that would only engage relaxation mechanisms.

As had been hypothesized, it was found that mindfulness meditation decreased pain intensity and unpleasantness beyond the analgesic effects of placebo or sham mindfulness meditation. Furthermore, effective mindfulness meditation engaged brain mechanisms that were indeed distinct from those of placebo-induced analgesia or sham mindfulness meditation.

Whereas sham mindfulness meditation-induced analgesia was associated with lower respiration rates, reflecting a relaxation response, mindfulness meditation-reduced pain ratings were independent of respiration rate and were achieved via neurological mechanisms of pain modulation.

Mindfulness meditation decreased the activation of brain regions involved in processing sensory information and in the cognitive modulation of pain. This study indicated that mindfulness meditation is an active cognitive practice, whereas a placebo effect arises from a more passive cognitive state.
– via brainblogger.com

Doing A Body Scan To Control Pain

If you want to try using mindfulness meditation to help control your pain and stress level, a body scam could be a great primer. For people with different types of pain, there will be other specific meditation practices to use, but a body scam gives you a good foundation of mindfulness to start from.

Step 1 Preparation

The first step involves setting yourself up for your practice. Choose a quiet and comfortable place you can lie down. You don’t want to be distracted so let others know not to disturb you for the duration of your meditation. Turn off your phone or turn it to silent. Maybe even hang a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door.

Step 2 Grounding

After you are comfortable turn your awareness to your body. Feel the parts of your body that are in contact with the surface on which you’re laying. Also notice the position your body is in. Mentally examine your body for any areas where there may be tension—the shoulders, the jaw, the stomach. See if you can consciously release or soften those areas of the body so that you can be totally relaxed.

Step 3 Present Moment Awareness

The third step is a decision to let go of the past and the future, let go of thoughts, and to be fully engaged in the present moment. Here you focus your awareness only on your body and let everything else drop away. You make the decision that whatever you do encounter while examining your body will be met with a sense of ‘friendliness’.

Basically, what that means is that you allow whatever you encounter to be as it is. You aim to meet it with equanimity and not to judge or label certain parts of the body or treat painful body parts as an enemy.

Step 4 The Body Scan

The fourth step is the actual “scan” part. With your mind, you scan—or turn your attention—to each part of your body, one at a time. You may start with one foot and give it all your attention. Feel into the whole foot. Notice any sensation of temperature. Be aware of any fabrics that may be in touch with the skin or the point where the air meets the skin. Any sensations are welcome. Does it feel heavy or tired?

Don’t start engaging in thinking about it though- Simply aim to be aware of the sensations here.

Continue the scan, moving your attention progressively up one leg and then the other, then to the torso, back arms, head and neck, focusing on part by part, one at a time.

Step 5 Whole Body Awareness

The fifth and final step is to become aware of the entire body as a connected whole. Bring awareness to your entire physical body and maintain that awareness for a few minutes. Feel the body from within. Again, aim to stay fully present. There is no need to think about the body. Simply feel into it.

Many people who have used mindfulness–based pain relief techniques – like the body scan – report that it works very well for them.

Their ability to cope with pain improves which, in turn, improves their quality of life. It also has the wonderful side benefit of alleviating much of the mental and emotional strain associated with chronic pain.
– via Mrs. Mindfulness

Have you ever practiced mindfulness meditation?