On this blog, we discuss a variety of natural pain remedies in regenerative medicine — stem cells, medical marijuana, and CBD oil, massage therapy. But one of the most effective treatments for pain sits between our own 2 ears — our mind. A number of studies indicate that meditation not only can be an effective pain treatment but may be one of the strongest options out there. Here’s why it works and a few ways you can meditate in your daily life.
Meditation Rewires the Brain
When we anticipate pain, our brains’ neurological pathways are reprogrammed in such a way that merely thinking about pain causes physical discomfort. After a while, the thought of pain becomes a painful trigger in itself. Meditation can actually rewire us in the opposite direction — to induce a sense of comfort and satisfaction, even in the face of physical pain.
In fact, scientists have studied how ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) reacts to meditation. This is the part of the brain that regulates thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Regular meditation has been found to improve emotional regulation so you literally feel pain less because your brain is better able to manage it.
“What meditation does is to rewire your brain for peace and happiness. Meditation helps to prevent and reduce anxiety and stress, which can trigger more pain,” writes Thomas Hazen, a retired physician and founder of the Elite Health, in his blog. “When you focus on your brain, you don’t have time to worry about the pain. Not only does meditation improve the sense of your well-being, but also increases psychological functioning.”
Meditation Releases Endorphins
Meditation may be a mental exercise, but the results can be physically beneficial. Numerous studies have shown that the practice of meditation releases a number of endorphins, including serotonin — the “happy neurotransmitter” that profoundly impacts our mood and increases our sense of well being. This, in turn, helps us feel happier and process pain less.
A 1995 study on the effect of mindful meditation on pain processing concluded:
“Interestingly, meditation reduces pain by engaging brain regions (sgACC, OFC, anterior insula) that contain high concentrations of opioid receptors. On the other hand, mindfulness meditation also reduces activation in the PAG, a brain region involved in facilitating opioid-mediated descending pain inhibition. Thus, a recent double-blind psychophysical study tested whether mindfulness meditation–based analgesia was mediated by endogenous opioids; 78 healthy pain-free subjects were randomized to one of four 4-session intervention groups (meditation + naloxone, book-listening control + naloxone, meditation + saline, book-listening control + saline) to determine if intravenous administration of high doses of naloxone would reverse meditation-induced analgesia.”
The Effect of Mindfulness on Chronic Pain
Mindfulness is all about maintaining a moment by moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. It’s a process of being in the here and now, focusing on the present moment and our place in the universe. The beauty of mindfulness is you can practice it anytime — while you’re enjoying your morning coffee, contentedly thinking during your workday commute, taking a leisurely stroll outdoors.
The good news is that practicing mindfulness can help in chronic pain management. It can benefit in the treatment of chronic headaches, and can be highly beneficial at promoting health and wellness. In fact, a recent study that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded showed that mindfulness meditation can relieve chronic pain even more effectively than standard treatments.
“It is vital that we identify effective non-pharmacological treatment options for 25 million people who suffer from daily pain in the United States,” said Josephine Briggs, M.D., director of NCCIH. “The results from this research affirm that non-drug/non-opioid therapies, such as meditation, can help manage chronic low-back pain. Physicians and their patients can use this information to inform treatment decisions.”
Ways to Incorporate Meditation into Daily Life
One of the biggest hurdles many people face when attempting meditation is perfection. They feel the setting must be totally ideal, they must remain focused, and any distraction or disruption is a total failure.
The truth is meditation at its core is just hanging out — getting to know the inner spirit through self-reflection. Rather than insist on a totally blank mind, it’s best to acknowledge any thoughts that may come and let them evaporate. Simply sit and be with yourself. Don’t ask for perfection.
Set a timer on your phone — it doesn’t have to be long. Even just 21 minutes is fine. Find a relaxing place — your backyard, a favorite nook, perhaps in your car before work. Close your eyes and focus on the present moment. Let the thoughts come and go and relax.
Relaxing music may help. You could perhaps try running a bath.
Don’t put too many expectations into the practice. Just sit and be with yourself and cultivate inner reflection. You do not need to become a monk in order to reap enormous benefits.