For people coping with chronic pain, meditation may provide some relief. Known to promote physical and mental relaxation, meditation typically involves focusing your attention on your breath or on a repeated word or phrase (known as a "mantra"). By reducing stress and calming your mind and body, meditation may spur certain beneficial changes that could aid in the management of pain.
Health Benefits of Meditation for Pain Relief
Although scientists have yet to fully understand how meditation might help decrease pain, early research suggests that there may be several factors at play. For instance, a small study shows that meditation may help lessen your sensitivity to pain. The study involved 17 people who regularly practiced meditation, as well as 18 people who had never meditated. In studying brain scans of the participants, researchers found that brain regions responsible for regulating pain were significantly thicker in those who were experienced in meditation.
In another small study (published in a 2010 issue of Pain), scientists discovered that people who meditate regularly may cope with pain better. Looking at data on individuals with a wide range of meditation experience, the study's authors discovered that those with longer meditation experience (up to 35 years) had significantly less activity in brain regions involved in anticipating pain. The authors suggest that meditation (especially mindfulness meditation) may also help protect against depression, a condition known to worsen chronic pain.
Even a brief training in meditation may help with pain management, according to a 2010 study from The Journal of Pain. In a series of experiments that involved delivering harmless electrical shocks, researchers found that subjects who had participated in three 20-minute meditation sessions had less pain sensitivity (compared to study members who hadn't practiced meditation).
It's important to note that few studies have tested the use of meditation as a treatment for chronic pain.
Using Meditation for Pain Relief
Due to the lack of science behind meditation's effects on chronic pain, it's important not to rely solely on meditation for the treatment of pain-causing disorders like arthritis, fibromyalgia, and migraine. If you're considering the use of meditation for any type of chronic condition, talk to your doctor about how to incorporate meditation into your treatment program.
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Grant JA, Rainville P. "Pain sensitivity and analgesic effects of mindful states in Zen meditators: a cross-sectional study." Psychosom Med. 2009 71(1):106-14.
Zeidan F, Gordon NS, Merchant J, Goolkasian P. "The effects of brief mindfulness meditation training on experimentally induced pain." J Pain. 2010 11(3):199-209.