Mindfulness and Persistent Pain
Evidence Shows that Mindfulness Meditation Provides More Effective Pain Relief Than Placebo
What Is Mindfulness?
Guided Meditative Exercises
Mindfulness as a Pain Management Tool
The power of the human brain is incredible, and still not fully known. Wide-ranging studies in the past 40+ years have focused on the benefits of mindfulness meditation not only for mental health but also for managing chronic or persistent physical pain.
For many years, traditional Western medicine's treatment for persistent physical pain (especially in the absence of an obvious, simple, or easily treated source) has been pain medication, often opioids, which can have extremely serious side effects and are highly addictive.
As the dangers of opioids have become more clear, and as researchers have discovered that the way we think about and interact with our pain can change the way our brains respond to it, many doctors have turned to mindfulness as an addition to the pain treatment protocols they prescribe to their patients to help improve quality of life.
What is Mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, an emeritus professor of medicine who has been a leader in the mindfulness movement since the 1980s, defines mindfulness as "awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally."
This might sound simple, right? In theory, yes, but like any other type of exercise, mindfulness takes practice and intention to succeed. Therefore it will work most effectively when you set aside time for doing it, every day if possible.
One reason mindfulness is so beneficial is that it helps people learn to differentiate between the objective sensation of pain in the body and the subjective judgment that we attach to pain that impacts how we experience the pain.
Pain is typically judged as bad, something to be avoided and fixed as soon as possible. This can often lead people to try to avoid, ignore, or numb their pain, and this judgment of and resistance to pain can make the experience of it much more intense and negative than if we instead sit with the pain, acknowledge it non-judgmentally, pay attention to the sensations that the body is feeling, and accept it while trying not to attach negativity to it.
The fear that can accompany persistent pain (fear of how you'll be able to accomplish tasks or fear that the pain will get worse) can overwhelm all else and magnify the pain in your body. Becoming more aware of your pain without judging or labeling it has been shown to reduce the overall perception of pain.
A pioneering 1985 study by Kabat-Zinn followed 90 chronic pain patients who were trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Data showed significant decreases in the intensity of present-moment pain, negative body image, anxiety, and depression, along with a reduction in the use of pain medication. Numerous other studies have since produced similar results.
A 2015 study conducted by Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., found that after mindfulness treatment, patients' brain scans had less activation in the parts of the brain that manage pain. This study also resulted in some participants being able to reduce or altogether eliminate the use of pain medication through consistent daily mindfulness practice.
Following such powerful research, the use and recommendation of mindfulness practice by pain experts, doctors, and holistic healers alike has become more and more common over the past 30 years.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Some people just sit with their own thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations when practicing mindfulness, while others prefer to listen to a guided mindfulness exercises. These can be found in many different places, including on YouTube and through podcasts, books, audiobooks, and smartphone apps such as Headspace or Insight Timer. Some exercises are more focused on pain, others on anxiety or depression, or just more general grounding practices.
One type of mindfulness practice that can be very effective at reducing pain is the body scan method, which helps you to identify pain and other sensations in different parts of your body.
It's a good idea to try out a few different types of mindfulness meditation and see what works best for you. Depending on your location and resources, there may also be mindfulness classes or teachers in your area that you could utilize if desired.
Below are a few links to free body scan exercises that might be a good place to start. There is an enormous volume of mindfulness resources available online, so if these examples don't suit you, try something else!
▶︎ Body Scan Meditation | Jon Kabat-Zinn
▶︎ Meditation: Mindful Body Scan
▶︎ Relaxation Practice: Body Scan
Living with chronic pain can have a severe impact on one's quality of life. At Optimal Health Network, we work with people every day to help them heal from conditions that can cause extensive physical and psychological pain. While for many of these conditions, mindfulness on its own would not be the key to healing, it can make the healing journey less painful, faster, and more effective. Learning how to interact with your emotional and physical pain in an intentional and nonjudgmental manner can have a long-term benefit on how severely that pain is felt in your body.
DISCLAIMER: This material is presented for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or prescribing from a licensed healthcare professional. We make no claim or guarantee for cure or relief of any specific symptom, medical condition, or disease when using any of the products or protocols referenced here. Consult with a licensed healthcare professional before altering or discontinuing any current medications, treatment, or care, or starting any diet, exercise, cleansing, or supplementation program, or if you have or suspect you might have a health condition that requires medical attention.
By Kristina Amelong, CCT, CNC
I-ACT-Certified Colon Hydrotherapist
Certified Nutritional Consultant