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Meditation for Pain

Transcendental meditation may change the brain’s reaction to pain, according to a study in the August issue of the journal NeuroReport. The study compared the brain scans of people who had practiced transcendental meditation for 30 years to 12 participants who had only an introductory course in the technique. The brain scans of long-time meditators showed 40-50% less activity in response to acute pain than did the scans of newbies’ brains.

However, both groups rated their pain levels the same. Maybe I’m missing some bigger picture thing here, but I don’t care how my brain responds to pain if it still feels the same.

Before I go any further, you should know that transcendental meditation is a specific technique. It is only taught be certified experts and, oh yeah, a four-day course costs $2,500.

This isn’t to say that meditation isn’t effective for pain control, just that I’m skeptical that this is the best technique for it. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (only a government agency could have such an outrageously long name) provides a comprehensive look at meditation for health. Although the article doesn’t discuss headache specifically, the information is still relevant.

NCCAM describes two approaches to meditation; transcendental and mindfulness mediations. Mindfulness meditation is what’s taught all over the place, including yoga studios, on CDs and tapes, and even online (Google learn mindfulness meditation for links).

In any case, it’s certainly worth a try. No bodily harm can come of it, and, even if it doesn’t reduce perceived pain, it can help calm you down during a severe headache and possibly reduce your baseline stress level.

Meditation is something I’ve been thinking about trying for a long time, but attempts are easily thwarted (what a great word). I think am in-person class might be the right choice for me. Are any of you meditators? What benefits do you gain from it?

5 Responses to Meditation for Pain

  1. Kate says:

    Hi Kerrie-
    I used to meditate years ago, (mindfulness), and found it very helpful with stress, but I find it hard to keep up since the headaches became daily, 5 years ago.

    Recently, however, I started doing a simple breathing exercise that gives me a similar benefit: Sit or lay with spine straight. Put your tongue to the roof of your mouth, just behind the teeth. Inhale through the nose for a count of four. Hold breath for a count of seven. Exhale through the mouth for a count of eight. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Then breathe normally for a few moments and notice how you are breathing easier.

    I’ve been doing it for a couple of weeks, and find I am breathing better overall and feeling less anxiety. (I wasn’t doing it for pain relief, but for anxiety.)
    The tongue thing seems to help me to exhale more slowly, and to be more focused, although I don’t know what it’s meant to do. (My therapist gave me the exercise.)

    I do it when I first wake up, before going to sleep, if I’m stuck awake during the night, and at several points during the day when I notice I am tense. It’s easy and it feels good. I think it’s helping me with stress, which is a bigger issue for me since becoming ill.

    Just thought I’d toss it out there as a quick alternative for those who find it hard to meditate. -Kate

  2. i’ve been really skeptical of basically anything other than what my neurologist told me to do until the last six months, when i got incredibly worse and incapacitated. since then i’ve been more open (although still guarded) to trying some other stuff. my therapist convinced me a few months ago to try doing a short relaxation exercise every day. i listen to a recording off of my ipod, and while i don’t necessarily think it helps the long term pain, it definitely can take the edge off of a medium bad migraine, and also really calms my stress down.

  3. Diana says:

    I’ve been trying to work through a book/CD combo set my acupuncturist recommended I try called Break Through Pain by Shinzen Young. I must admit that it has been difficult to make myself sit down and work at this. I got it for about $5, including shipping, from an Amazon Merchant, so I feel that anything I get out of it was money well spent.

    I love the idea of mindfulness meditation, but I have a hard time turning my mind off and focusing on the practice. I seem to alternate between the extremes of racing thoughts and, well, sleep. I would love to try the practice in a classroom setting. I’ve considered attending a local Buddhist center, but I’m not sure how I feel about dipping my toes in the water with that right now.

    I love Kate’s suggestion. I need something simple like that to focus on. Thanks, Kate!

  4. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for your input guys. I like hearing about some alternatives to heavy duty meditation. I agree that it seems like an big endeavor to get started classes.

    K

  5. Christine says:

    Like Kate, I used to meditate, but haven’t now for quite a while. I have tried using the same book/CD as Diana–Break Through Pain. Basically he is teaching you to do mindfulness meditation, with whatever pain or emotion is going on as the focus (instead of the breath). Doesn’t sound like much fun, but I’ve found that following along with the exercise on the CD can relieve a headache, or at least help me relax somewhat. If I listen to it when I am in bed, I usually start to fall asleep, unless the headache is really bad.

    ********
    Interesting that you two are using the same book and CD. I may check it out.

    K

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