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Using mindfulness in chronic pain management

By Rose Lugo

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The sensation of pain is something everyone will inevitably experience at some point in their lives. For some, especially in one’s younger years of life, pain will only be the result of injury or a medical issue that can be remedied with the right treatment or amount of time. But for others, pain is a virtually constant presence, one that can make even simple, everyday tasks very difficult.

Chronic pain

This form of lasting pain often accompanies chronic conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. These conditions can appear at any age, though they are more likely to manifest as one grows older. While many medications can help reduce these sensations, they often do not account for the psychological distress that follows them. And some painkillers, such as opioids, can be addicting, leading to further health issues.

Many health professionals advise that individuals experiencing chronic pain do some form of physical activity frequently, alongside any pain medications they are prescribed or over-the-counter medications they find effective. Another common recommendation is to reduce stress as much as possible, as physical and mental pain are often deeply interconnected. Various mindfulness practices have been found to help in this regard.

Mindfulness and chronic pain

Mindfulness can be beneficial to those experiencing chronic pain in two main ways. As mentioned, it can help reduce the stress that often exacerbates pain. Studies have shown that mindfulness practices, such as meditation and non-reactive awareness, can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. By acting on these negative psychological sensations, the unpleasant physical ones may become less intense.

Mindfulness can also act more directly on the perception of the pain itself. Research has found that, paradoxically, practices that draw an individual’s attention to the pain have been shown to decrease negative views of the pain and perceived suffering. While the pain itself does not decrease, as this can only truly be achieved by medications, it allows an individual to become less reactive to it and more able to focus on other areas of life. This is a way of practicing radical acceptance of one’s circumstances, which can greatly improve one’s quality of life, especially when coupled with other recommendations and treatments.

Physical evidence showing the effects of mindfulness

These changes in pain perception have appeared in studies both through self-reported accounts and brain scans. Several studies have identified areas of the brain associated with pain perception and response to pain. Consistent with the literature, these studies do not report significant changes in the areas responsible for detecting the pain itself. However, there are notable changes evident in brain areas associated with emotional responses to pain and self-regulation. This is especially promising for individuals who may have developed a dependency on pain-relieving medications, as mindfulness can both reduce negative responses to pain and urges to overuse medications.

While mindfulness may not fully cure experiences of pain, it can be an incredibly valuable tool for individuals dealing with frequent chronic pain. With education on these practices, mindfulness can be an easily accessible way to reduce feelings of discomfort and stress, potentially leading to improved quality of life. ••

Rose Lugo is an intern for Matthew’s Mindful Moment.

For more information, visit https://matthewsmindfulmoment.com/, go to the Matthew’s Mindful Moment page on Facebook or email info@matthewsmindfulmoment.com.

References

Garland, E. L., Hudak, J., Hanley, A. W., & Nakamura, Y. (2020). Mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement reduces opioid dose in primary care by strengthening autonomic regulation during meditation. American Psychologist, 75(6), 840–852. https://doi.org/10.1037/AMP0000638

Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B. A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., Colaiaco, B., Maher, A. R., Shanman, R. M., Sorbero, M. E., & Maglione, M. A. (2017). Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 51(2), 199–213. https://doi.org/10.1007/S12160-016-9844-2

La Cour, P., & Petersen, M. (2015). Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Chronic Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Pain Medicine (United States), 16(4), 641–652. https://doi.org/10.1111/PME.12605

Marikar Bawa, F. L., Sutton, J. W., Mercer, S. W., & Bond, C. M. (2021). “I’m empowered to look after myself” — Mindfulness as a way to manage chronic pain: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of participant experiences in Scotland. Social Science and Medicine, 281. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.SOCSCIMED.2021.114073

Zeidan, F., Grant, J. A., Brown, C. A., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters, 520(2), 165–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.NEULET.2012.03.082

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