There are many scientifically-validated claims about meditation’s myriad benefits, but can it actually reduce chronic pain?
One study demonstrated a significant decrease in chronic pain-related suffering from 10 weeks of mindfulness meditation.
Another study found that meditation improves pain tolerance by 57%.
How is this possible? To make sense of these results, it helps to know the difference between pain and suffering.
Pain vs. Suffering
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami famously wrote, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Many people don’t realize the key difference between pain and suffering. While pain is the physically uncomfortable stimulus, like a pinch on the arm, suffering is our emotional reaction to that pain.
Neuroscience has shown us recently that most of our suffering is caused by our response to pain, both anticipating its continuation and replaying its memory, rather than the actual present-moment experience of the pain itself.
The brain receives a signal from the pinch and then creates a whole story about that signal that causes us to suffer. But what if we could train ourselves to perceive the signal without layering on such a dramatic interpretation of it?
It turns out that this is possible through meditation. To site a third study, neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Ph.D., and his colleagues administered very hot water to a group of experienced and novice meditators. They found that while the experienced meditators reported the same level of pain intensity as the novice meditators, they were less affected by it. In other words, the pain (physical stimulus) was the same, but the meditators suffered less (diminished reaction). The experienced meditators also demonstrated a very small prior reaction to or recovery period from the pain when compared to novices.
These results suggest that, with enough experience meditating, the brain learns to reinterpret pain in a beneficial way. While meditation is by no means a panacea, it can, in fact, train the mind to suffer less as a result of pain.
How can someone with chronic pain put this into practice?
Meditation for Chronic Pain
Mindfulness meditation, the style of meditation used in the previously mentioned studies, involves observing one’s present moment experience without judging it.
You can practice this by sitting still with eyes open or closed and just carefully noticing your experience in each moment without getting lost in thoughts.
If you notice a sound, an itch, a mental image or thought, simply note what is happening without reacting to it in any way.
This is the technique known as mindfulness meditation that has become so popular recently. While a formal sitting practice can begin to re-wire the brain, mindfulness gets put into practice when used in everyday life, constantly applying a non-judgmental awareness to whatever is happening at that moment.
In a world in which pain is inevitable, as Murakami wisely put it, we do have the ability to change the mind’s attitude, whether faced with chronic pain or just the wear and tear of daily living.
Liam McClintock, Founder of FitMind.co, received a B.A. from Yale and worked in finance before traveling to Asia to study meditation full-time. He was diagnosed with OCD and ADHD as a child and overcame these disorders primarily using his meditation training. Liam is an RYS Certified Meditation Instructor and has trained in Vipassana (Insight Meditation), Transcendental Meditation (TM), Vedic Meditation, Dzogchen, and Meditation-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). He has been featured in Time, Vice, Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan, NBC, and Men’s Journal.
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