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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:

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A Joyous Return to Yoga

Last week I went to my first yoga class in more than a year. It was amazing.

My body felt better. My mind felt better. My head even felt a little better. At home, my practice is always half-hearted and rushed. It is more about getting through what I need to do. What I’ve always loved about yoga is focusing on the good my body can do instead of how my health drags me down. I feel strong and whole. I haven’t found that in my home practice, but I felt it in class.

Maybe because I felt safe with the teacher walking me through everything I had to do. I pushed myself, but gently. My neck and shoulders, already loosened up after a massage on Monday, felt better than they have in a year. Seriously.

Having only a few good hours most days, usually in the morning, has kept me from class. If I devote that time to class, then I don’t get anything else done. Tuesday I went to class, then had a great rest of the day. More energy and strength followed. I got my good hours and then some.

Maybe it was a fluke, but Monday and Tuesday were great days. I felt good physically and mentally. I’d like to attribute it to massage and yoga. Or maybe it was the return to exercise, as not exercising contributes to headaches. (Although I doubt one day made much difference!)

In any case, I’ve planned a new routine. Such plans aren’t usually successful for me, but I think I can do this. Massage at 9:30 a.m. Monday and yoga in that time slot on Tuesday and Thursday.

Just like that I swung from despair to hopefulness. I’m trying to temper my excitement, but it is hard. Not only did I do something I love last week, I think it actually helped my head. *fingers crossed*

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Mini-Medical School from UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine

University of California San Francisco faculty members and other experts discuss current issues in health and science. Presentations from the last five years are available online. Some of particular interest include:

Coping With Stress

Brain, Mind and Behavior

Complementary & Alternative Medicine

UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine runs the mini-medical school program.

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Mindfulness & Meditation: An Introduction

Finally! Here’s an explanation of mindfulness meditation and the practice of mindfulness in general. The post is long but worth sticking with. (I think so at least!)

Mindfulness = Paying Attention
Mindfulness is captured by simple terms:

  • Paying attention
  • Being, not doing
  • Present moment awareness
  • Being “here”

Easy ideas, complicated concepts. The ubiquity of multitasking is an excellent example of the challenges. Home, work, play, school, friends, family… There’s so much to think about and it all fights for attention. With our minds everywhere at once, they are often far from our actual lives.

The UCSD Center for Mindfulness, part of the medical school’s psychiatry department, gives this definition:

[Mindfulness] is a quality, which human beings already have, but they have usually not been advised that they have it, that it is valuable, or that it can be cultivated. Mindfulness is the awareness that is not thinking (but that which is aware of thinking, as well as aware of each of the other ways we experience the sensory world, i.e., seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling through the body).

Mindfulness is non-judgmental and open-hearted (friendly and inviting of whatever arises in awareness). It is cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us. By intentionally practicing mindfulness, deliberately paying more careful moment-to-moment attention, individuals can live more fully and less on “automatic pilot,” thus, being more present for their own lives.

How is mindfulness part of meditation?
Meditation can be broken into two basic categories: Concentration and mindfulness. Until my recent introduction to mindfulness, I’d always thought of meditation as concentrating on clearing one’s mind or focusing on a narrow idea. To me, mindfulness seems the opposite.

What I love about Western medicine’s approach to mindfulness meditation is the focus on becoming aware of your body, to be rooted in what you are experiencing. Having felt that my body has “betrayed” by giving me migraine and chronic daily headache, I am amazed by all the good it does.

That said, mindfulness meditation also involves paying attention to negative sensations (i.e. pain). I’ve long been a fan of burying my nose in a book to distract myself. Paying attention to the pain, nausea and vertigo is indescribably difficult. I get frustrated nearly every time. Tears and yelling are not uncommon. But I keep practicing and, like with any knew skill, it becomes a little easier each time.

This approach fully acknowledges that the mind wanders. In fact, one of the CDs I use says that the nature of the mind is to wander. Thinking of it this way makes it easier to let the thoughts go and return to the practice. There’s a non-judgmental quality to it and one that I, with practice, am learning to accept.

Think it’s not for you? Think again.
If I can do it, anyone can. Seriously. I have only be involved with it for two months, but my health has already benefited. The definition I provide from the UCSD Center for Mindfulness is rather academic, but my experience hasn’t been. You’ve probably caught on by now that practice is key. I started with, and still use, a 20-minute CD segment. I feel my body relax as I progress and am always surprised when it ends.

The point of all this is not “enlightenment,” but better health. I now notice when I start to feel flushed, which is usually the beginning of a crash. Sometimes I push, but sometimes I stop. In the airport recently, the rigmarole, crowds and general feeling of being rushed got to me. All I did was sit down and breathe and felt better within 10 minutes. I also thought of a small step I could take to ensure I stayed calm: I could pre-board. Boy, did that help.

Want to join me?
I already know that mindfulness will become an integral part of my treatment. As such, it will likely become a main topic on The Daily Headache. You can follow along with my experience and may even want to join me. I’d love to get a dialog going where we can learn from each other.

Resources
I’ve found some websites with good introductions to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Some get kind of abstract and spiritual sounding, but try to think of how it can apply to your health and self-care. Following links about mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may be helpful.

For books, I recommend starting with Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. Basically a book version of UMass’s Stress Reduction Clinic’s program, it takes a strong Western approach. It reads like the self-help book it is, yet has great information. You’ll help support The Daily Headache if you buy it through the link above or you can probably get it at your library.

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Debilitating Nausea Caused By High(ish) Magnesium Dose

white capsulesWoo hoo! I feel human again and it’s all because I stopped taking magnesium. Yep, magnesium, the wonder supplement that helps so many people with migraine and chronic daily headache. I don’t think magnesium itself is to blame, but that the dose was too high. Since I can’t even take a multivitamin without nausea, I was hyper-aware as I increased from my starting dose of 100 mg. Or so I thought.

At 333 mg per day, it was within the normal dose range for treating headaches of 200-500 mg per day. It was also within the recommended daily allowance of 350 mg. I’ve discovered that allowances and ranges are like speed limits: A guideline you’re not supposed to exceed, but that you don’t have to meet.

Practically every health care provider I’ve seen has recommended magnesium to me. I’ve taken it on and off over the last five years, although this is the first time I’ve taken it consistently for more than a few weeks. Because I’ve read so much about it and had it prescribed before, I thought I could adjust the dose myself just fine. I figured I’d be fine if I stayed at or under the RDA. I unwittingly fell for the myth that medications, vitamins and supplements sold over-the-counter are harmless.

The good and frustrating news: My overall head pain was less and I had fewer migraines during the time I was horribly nauseated. I’m guessing that means the magnesium helped some. I think once my system flushes the current round of magnesium, I’ll have my different vitamin and mineral levels tested. I’ll also make myself keep a diary of my symptoms and doses. I wouldn’t want to go through these last six weeks again. I felt horrible and was so scared of what might be wrong with me.

I haven’t had any blood tests, so I’m not positive the nausea was caused by excessive magnesium. But when debilitating nausea that began about the time I increased my dose goes away when I stop taking the pills, the evidence is strong enough for me.

What is your experience been with magnesium? Please leave a comment below or chime in on the online support group and forum.