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Treating Pain With Meditation

I’ve dabbled in mindfulness meditation as a pain reduction strategy for a few years. A study released in April, which showed significant reduction in pain intensity and “unpleasantness” with meditation, spurred me to undertake a regular practice.

“This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

“We found a big effect about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.” [emphasis mine]

I checked meditation CDs out of the library and found podcasts of guided meditations as well as talks given at meditation centers. I listen to an hour or two of talks each day and try to spend at least 30 minutes in active meditation. I’d say I the most relief I’ve experienced is about a 1 percent reduction in pain intensity and unpleasantness.

In the study, the pain was induced by a device heating a portion of the participants’ skin to 120 degrees. I have to wonder if the results only apply to acute, not chronic, pain.

I wish my results were better. Not just for the obvious reasons, but also to provide general support to the practice of meditation. Though it doesn’t directly improve my pain, I do feel calmer overall. I enjoy the practice and will continue with it.

Have you had success controlling pain through meditation, mindfulness, or otherwise?

Recommended guided meditation CDs:

7 Responses to Treating Pain With Meditation

  1. Diana says:

    For me mindfulness meditation helps alleviate the suffering associated with pain rather than diminishing the pain itself. It makes me more able to cope with what I’m dealing with. On hard days I definitely still experience suffering. But day to day I suffer less now that I’ve started this practice.

  2. Krista says:

    I practice mindfulness meditation as well. I started for spiritual reasons about 10 years ago. My results are similar to yours and Diana’s. I’ve found it helps me change my relationship with pain some of the time. It allows me sometimes to witness the pain and observe its changing nature. I’ve found that meditating is one of the only things I can do when I get a serious migraine.

  3. I have been doing vipassana mediation EVERYDAY for fifteen months. I started with a Jon Kabat Zinn style mindfulness course and listened to a body scan cd (35 min) every day for several months. At times mindfulness of pain would actually increase pain. I’d do it when I had 8 out of 10 pain scale migraines. Sometimes the pain would shift, sometimes not. Gradually I became aware of the pain as sensation, similar to sensation in other parts of my body, well not actually similar–but by training my focus I saw if I focussed on another part of my body I was learning how not to obsess on pain but be lighter with it.

    It has been a very gradual change. But I can tell you along with my savior preventative drug (Depakote), meditation seems to be shifting things. I now have many pain free days, have a tool, and a spiritual practice. I attend dharma lectures and do meditations without cds. But I am still a beginner. It is only over time that I can point to this as the thing that must be changing my attitude about pain. My suggestion is commitment and patience (and in my case pure desperation didn’t hurt! ; )

  4. Laura says:

    I too have practiced mindfulness and Vipassana for a few years now. For me it has helped me develop a new relationship to the pain, and most significantly reduced my mental and emotional suffering. It has also helped me accept it on a much deeper level because I am allowing it instead of “fighting it” like I used to. I also find that it can increase the pain at times so patience and balance is key. It helps for general relaxation and helps me to calm myself down so the building of tension doesn’t add to the situation causing more pain.

    I too resonate with the teachings, particularly Metta or loving kindess, which can really serve as a balm to the inner pain and rawness of the experience. I have used this method to release a lot of past traumas and emotions as well, so freeing up this “space” has given me more room to allow the condition to just “be”.

  5. Pat says:

    I came across this website http://www.smartcareliving.com and it mentioned most of the headaches are tension headaches. How is that different from migraine headaches? Is migraine just chronic?

  6. Stephanie says:

    I have chronic migraines and have been practicing mindfulness, including Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, for a number of years (actually long before I started getting migraines). For me, it doesn’t make sense to think of mindfulness as a direct method to reduce pain or stress or anxiety. If I do that, I can’t truly practice mindfulness and be in the moment because I’m just thinking about the result that I want, which is in the future. When I decide to be mindful and just be with my pain/suffering, I can reduce my anxiety level over the pain which sometimes does reduce the pain level.

    Mainly, I think that mindfulness helps me to prevent migraines. When I’m practicing throughout the day, I am more aware of things that I do which might cause pain (like bad posture, getting caught up in stress and worry, consuming unhealthy food/alcohol) and I’m also more aware when I start to get a migraine so that I can treat it more effectively. It helps to have little triggers throughout my day which remind me to go back to my breathing and mindfulness practice. I have little notes in my house and at my desk at work which remind me to stop for a few moments and be aware of my breathing.

  7. Ava says:

    FWIW…
    I have had only a couple of “true migraines” – but, my live is ruled by near-daily headaches apparently caused by chronic sinusitis- as bad as migraines by comparison (main difference is that I can feel pressure move from side to side – to the side of my face that is lower; also if I awaken with it, often just getting up and being vertical helps to alleviate it with time.) This may also be due to Lyme or associated tick infections, not sure (many have these symptoms as well).

    While I don’t practice daily meditation, I do practice “disowning” the pain, ie dissociating it so it is over “there” in some other compartment of my mind. A form of self-hypnosis, so more focused.

    If the pain is not over a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1-10, I usually do not notice it much; at least until my husband or kids ask me – oddly then I have to “check it out” and usually there is pain. Often they think I’m have a headache-free day even when I’m not, tho I know I function at a much lesser level.

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