Mindfulness meditation is a practice that has gained considerable popularity in the west. Popularized in large part by the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness encourages present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness through simple meditative practices such as attending to one’s own breath. Over time, the practice of mindful awareness can become more easily generalized to an infinite number of external and internal events, helping practitioners to cultivate a state of equanimity, or calmness and poise, even in the face of distressing events, unpleasant physical sensations, or strong emotions. Mindfulness also can be very effective in dealing with chronic pain.
The Costs and Challenges of Chronic Pain
Pain is known to be a sensory, affective, and cognitive experience. That is, the experience of pain consists of 1) how our bodies feel and how our nervous system interprets these sensations, 2) the emotions we have in response the pain, and 3) the way we think about the pain, including our judgments about the experience. The latter two aspects of this trio also affect how well we cope with pain and how likely we are to be able to live a life that has meaning for us—despite having pain.
A recent, large-scale study found that roughly 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Pain is responsible for enormous economic costs, including an estimated $300 billion in health care expenditures and up to $650 billion in economic costs each year due to lost days at work and decreased productivity. While staggering, these numbers say nothing about the personal costs of pain, including changes in social functioning and the ability to perform many daily tasks, relationship stresses, anxiety that pain will worsen, and hopelessness that things will improve.
Although medications and, at times, surgical and other interventions can be important tools for pain management, too often they fail to completely relieve pain. Furthermore, drugs and procedures do not directly impact how people cope with symptoms that may not be curable.
How Does Mindfulness Help with Pain and Coping?
- Pain is a brain-centered experience in that our brains control how we experience any sensory input from our nervous system. In other words, without a brain, we could not “interpret” pain as such.
- There is considerable overlap between the structures in the brain that process pain and those that process the emotional experience of pain, its degree of severity, and the meaning we give to pain and how well we cope with it. So our emotions and thoughts about pain can either improve or worsen the experience of it (which is good news and bad).
- Mindfulness is a simple practice that has been shown to change the activity in areas of the brain that process pain severity and unpleasantness, improving both.
What’s the Evidence?
A recent study examined whether time-limited mindfulness training (four days of training, 20 minutes per day) would decrease pain severity and the unpleasantness associated with it. Researchers found that even after only a very brief instruction in mindfulness, meditating in the presence of experimentally induced pain significantly reduced pain intensity by 40%, and unpleasantness by 57%, as compared to simply resting during pain. Changes reported by participants were supported by what the team found when using brain imaging. The benefits described above were the result of increased activation in brain areas associated with the ability to reframe how pain is evaluated, and reduced activation in other areas that process the pain signal received from the body.
Another study found that experienced meditators had lower sensitivity to experimentally induced pain as well as greater thickness in the cortical areas associated with the processing of emotions in general and with the emotional experience of pain, specifically, as compared to nonmeditators. The team’s results suggest that the thicker cortical areas observed in long-term meditators may be due to the practice itself.
To summarize, the above studies suggest that mindfulness meditation, a low- to no-cost intervention that is free of side effects and easy to learn, can be effective in decreasing pain severity and unpleasantness, as well as enhancing one’s ability to cope despite the presence of pain. Preliminary studies using brain imaging techniques have shown observable differences in the brain function of new meditators, as well as in both the function and structure of the brains of experienced meditators, that objectively illustrate these improvements. Given the above, mindfulness is an important tool to consider adding to one’s toolbox to help manage the experience of chronic pain. Doing so can help sufferers resume activities that are important to them and feel better rather than waiting, endlessly, “until the pain is gone.”
- Grant, J.A., Courtemanche, J., Duerden, E. G., Duncan, G. H. (2010). Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in Zen meditators. Emotion, 10(1), 43-53.
- Study shows chronic pain costs U.S. up to $635 billion. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.ampainsoc.org/press/2012/cost-of-pain.html
- Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G., Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(14), 5540-5548.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.