Chronic pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. Imagine an affordable way to manage chronic pain and decrease the anxiety and depression that comes with it. Seems expensive and maybe impossible. But it’s not. It’s a rather simple answer: meditation.
No prior experience is needed to see results in the benefits meditation for pain. So says a study at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center where 15 meditation beginners learned “focused attention,” a meditative technique that avoids distracting thoughts and focuses instead on breathing. The volunteers attended four, 20-minute training classes. A special MRI machine monitored the subject’s brain processes before and after the training. During the scans, a heating device that rose to 120 degrees was placed onto their right leg. Participants rated both the intensity and the unpleasantness of the pain. The findings, after the training sessions, showed a 40% reduction in pain intensity and a 57% drop in pain unpleasantness. That’s double the effectiveness of morphine.
Fadel Zeidan, the lead author of the study, said, “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.”
Meditation for chronic pain such as fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and migraines has proved effective in various research. Meditation also has helped patients with chronic low back pains. In this pilot study, patients either received normal care or completed eight weeks of a loving-kindness meditation program where they were measured on pain, anger, and psychological distress. Patients who used meditation for chronic pain showed significant improvements in pain and psychological distress while the normal care patients showed no improvements. The data also found that more loving-kindness meditation practice one day meant lower pain and anger the next day.
Another study seems to shed light on the neural mechanisms as to why meditation for chronic pain works. First-time meditators who were trained over eight weeks showed a better ability to control alpha rhythms, a specific type of brainwave. Half of the participants practiced a mindfulness-based stress reduction technique while the other half did not meditate. The meditators paid close attention to body sensations, and their alpha waves grew with focus on specific body parts. This suggests that pain sufferers who meditate can essentially regulate and decrease the scale of pain signals by shifting their focus from the pain.
Pain will always be a complex and prevalent condition and some chronic pain sufferers are told to live with the pain, and now, meditation can help them actually do it. Long-term meditation practices for chronic pain have continued to show beneficial effects. It helps relax the body, but also improves the brain’s response to pain. This doesn’t mean that medication is no longer needed, but maybe less needed. If a chronic pain sufferer can tune out distractions, calm and focus the mind and body through meditation, then they have the potential to relieve their pain, or control the degree at which they feel it.
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