The Complex Relationship between Meditation and Chronic Pain

In western culture, many people tend to frame body and mind as two distinct parts of us. There are mental health disorders, then there are physical ailments. To treat disease, there are somatic treatments which address physical symptoms, but they tend to not directly acknowledge mental health.

However, time and time again, we are reminded that the two are more than interrelated: they are parts of one system. Our mental state is pushed and pulled by the various chemicals released by the body; while conversely our physical state is impacted our mentalhealth. Poor mental well-being can stress the body iand amplify symptoms of a pre-existing disease.

For most of my life, I was a skeptic of meditation– or at least meditation as it existed in the US. While it has ancient origin and spiritual importance in many cultures, it also seemed over-marketed and diluted in the US. Like a juice cleanse or a trend inspired by ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, it seemed too good to be true; a catch-all answer thrown around with too much ease. I didn’t see how thinking about breathing or my left hand could legitimately offer help for rare genetic disorders or chronic pain that not even strong medicines could kick to the dust. If someone had suggested that it had a place in the world of medicine, it would have sounded to me like a clickbait ad promising to treat breast cancer with peppermint oil.

Now, my viewpoint has shifted. I realize that I had been dismissive about a subject I knew very little about. Additionally, I think my previous mindset had been influenced by a cultural bias– because meditation is largely associated non-western cultures, it’s often presented as less legitimate.

In recent years, research supporting the value of mediation has grown expansively. Meditation and mindfulness have sparked new interest outside of their historic roots. Psychologists talk about them; pain management experts talk about them; patients too.

PhD and lead author of the review “Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology” Joseph Wielgosz discussed the paradigm in healthcare. He explains that pain treatment and mental health are often categorized separately, “despite the close relationship we know that they have with each other.” He prefers the integrative, holistic pain management programs which recognizes the need to look at the related symptoms together.

What is meditation?

Meditation and mindfulness are methods of training the mind to turn off its mental chatter and become more aware of the present moment, one’s body, breathing, surroundings, and mind. It encourages the person to externalize them self from their mind and become the observer. A person should become aware of what thoughts keep interrupting, but not feel responsible for them or respond to them. Simply let them float on by. I’ve heard the metaphor that you are the radio and your thoughts are the channels. They keep giving you new chatter but you just keep flicking through the channels, tuning in and out of different wavelengths. You are not the broadcaster or music itself.

What type of pain does meditation address?

Dr. Wielgosz addresses how the mind makes chronic pain self-reinforcing, explaining, “The same brain circuits which shape our emotions also shape the experience of pain, and in chronic pain syndromes, we know there are shifts in the connectivity of emotion-related circuits, which come to play a heightened role in pain experience.”

PhD Danny Penman, explains how there are two types of pain: primary, that which is the result of the illness or injury itself; and secondary, the minds reaction to it, a process which intensifies suffering. Mindfulness helps address this secondary pain.

How does meditation decrease pain?

When it comes to pain, meditation allows patients to focus on the the specific properties of the pain and the sensations it produces, rather than trying to distract oneself from it. It’s seems like a paradox that focusing on pain makes it less potent. However, studies show that when meditators employ this method, the brain lights up in the parts associated with sensing pain, but not as much for the parts associated with suffering. The pain is accepted and understood, but not evaluated with emotion or as good or bad.

Dr. Wielgosz explained that basically, these practices train the mind to undo the heightened connection between the emotion and pain circuits, “reducing the sensitization and distress associated with pain.”

Penman describes, “In effect, mindfulness teaches you how to turn down the volume control on your pain. And as you do so, any anxiety, stress and depression that you may be feeling begins to melt away too. Your body can then relax and begin to heal.”

These observations are increasingly being backed up by data from neuro-imaging and measures of physiological symptoms that shows how and why mindfulness can effectively change pain responses. With calming ones breathing and relaxing the body, the brain receives less of the physiological symptoms that imply the patient is in stress. He hopes to find more exact data on the effects of different types of mindfulness training in order to tailor the practices to the patients.

Fibro patient Tracey M Lewis Giggetts describes how it allows her to see her chronic pain from outside herself and reflect on what the sensation itself is exactly, whether that be needling or numbness or bruising. Then moreover, it gave her insight into managing it because she could understand it more and see how her mind could amplify the pain and interpret it with further suffering.

Of course, meditation is not the solution to these ailments. It isn’t that pain is just mental, or that you can think it away if you just concentrate hard enough. Rather, mediation is one tool that can be paired with a more comprehensive treatment plan to help manage pain. It gives patients a natural method to take back some control and get a different perspective on their experience. While the primary pain itself will still be there, we can work to change how that pain is processed within us.

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