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When your chronic pain persists after you’ve tried conventional treatments, it may be worth a look at meditation. Even if you’re skeptical, you may find a type of meditation that helps you.

The scientific studies on whether meditation works to lower chronic pain have had mixed results. The wide variety of studies and methods makes them hard to compare.

But the bottom line is that some studies show meditation lessens chronic pain and stress for some people. Studies also show that meditation can work for beginners.

Read on to find out more about the scientific evidence on chronic pain and meditation and how to incorporate different meditation techniques.

What is meditation?

Meditation is an ancient practice with roots in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. It starts with focusing your attention on the present moment and not judging your thoughts in the process.

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Meditation uses different brain pathways to deal with pain from those used by other pain treatments. Over time, meditation can change your brain structure to better deal with pain.

Here’s what some studies reported:

  • A 2018 study of meditation, mindfulness, and the brain suggested that in the long term, meditation can change the structure of your brain. The resulting change in cortical thickness in some brain areas makes you less pain-sensitive.
  • The neural mechanisms meditation uses to modify pain are different from those used by other techniques. For example, a 2012 study determined that meditation promoted cognitive disengagement and an increased sensory processing of the actual pain.
  • Meditation also induces the body’s own opioid system. A very small, randomized, double-blind study from 2016 used the opioid blocker naloxone or a placebo and studied pain reduction with meditation. The group with the placebo experienced significantly less pain than the group that had the opioid blocker.

Research is ongoing to look at the exact physiological mechanisms involved with meditation.

A note about the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation”

The terms mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably or in combination.

In general, mindfulness is the practice of being aware of the present at any time in daily activities. Meditation refers to being mindful of your inner processes.

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Yes, for some people. Here are what some studies found:

  • A small controlled study in 2012 found that people who practiced mindfulness were able to reduce pain by 22 percent. They were also able to reduce anticipatory anxiety by 29 percent.
  • A 2014 meta-analysis of mindfulness and pain found “insufficient evidence” that mindfulness reduced pain intensity. But the same study found that it eased depression and anxiety in people with chronic pain. The study recommended that healthcare professionals integrate meditation into their pain treatment programs.
  • A 2017 review of nonpharmacological treatments reported that mindfulness-based stress reduction was able to improve lower back pain in a trial of 350 adults by more than 30 percent. The results were found to last a year after treatment.
  • A 2017 study of 864 people with lower back pain found that meditation was associated with short-term improvement of pain intensity and physical functioning.
  • A 2018 white paper on nonpharmacological pain care concluded that nonpharmacological treatments are underused. The paper noted that mindfulness practices show positive effects for people with chronic pain from headache, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • A 2018 review of mindfulness and the brain reported that experienced meditators were less sensitive to pain than a control population, as measured by MRI brain scans.
  • A 2019 study of mindfulness and pain concluded that mindfulness was associated with lower pain sensitivity, including in people who had no prior experience with meditation.

Every individual is different, so what works to relieve pain for you may not work for other people.

Chronic pain defined

Chronic pain is pain that you have for 3 months or more. The pain may start with an injury or a disease. In some cases, the cause may not be precisely known.

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In recent years, the research on meditation and chronic pain has greatly expanded. Studies are looking at what works for different types of chronic pain, such as back pain or chronic diseases.

There are many types of meditation techniques and many tools to help you get started. Here are a few examples:

Some people use more than one type of meditation, and many guides to getting started are free.

Unlike other methods of pain relief, when you meditate, you focus toward the pain, instead of away from it, in order to find relief. In other words, you’re not working to block or ignore it but to reduce the pain by working with it.

When you’re ready to try meditation, you’ll find many types to choose from. Look for something you’ll feel comfortable doing. Free guided recordings are available so that you can try them out.

Here are some possibilities.

Mindful meditation

Mindful meditation can help you manage stress, pain, and anxiety.

You can do this by yourself or with an instructor to guide you. Basically, you quietly concentrate on your thoughts without passing judgment on them.

It’s one of the most popular types of meditation. It’s also been the most studied type of meditation over the years.

A variety of apps can help you mindfully meditate via your phone or another device. You can find a guide to meditation apps here.

The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has a free 19-minute audio session and transcript to guide your meditation.

Visualization meditation

Guided imagery or visualization meditation combines visualizing something positive while you meditate. The aim is to focus your thoughts, calm you down, and reduce stress and pain.

Headspace has an app that can guide you through this.

Breathwork meditation

Breathwork meditation involves using a type of breathing exercise to change your breathing pattern and relax your mind. It’s sometimes used with mindfulness meditation to help you focus.

Many types of breathwork techniques are available. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA has a free 5-minute guided audio recording to take you through this.

Body scanning

In body scanning meditation, you mentally focus on your body from top to bottom. The aim is to notice everything about your body, relaxing each part of your body as you scan.

You can practice this scanning meditation sitting or lying down. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA has a free 3-minute audio recording for guidance. There’s also a script you can use.

The University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Center for Mindfulness has many guided recordings for body scanning meditation available here.

The Mind Illuminated

This approach is based on a popular book, “The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness.” It was published in 2015 and written by John Yates, a meditation teacher, to guide people through stages of meditation.

Yates is also a neuroscientist. He uses brain science along with ancient teachings to give beginners and experienced meditators a how-to manual to master meditation.

You can buy the book as a paperback, audiobook, or kindle at Amazon. A free online pdf version can be found here.

Podcasts and blog discussions are also available.

Scientific studies on the effectiveness of meditating to relieve chronic pain show mixed results. One problem is that it’s hard to compare studies involving particular sources of pain and different types of meditation.

But evidence exists that meditation does help some people with pain. How? Research shows that meditation uses neural pathways that make the brain less sensitive to pain and increases use of the brain’s own pain-reducing opioids.

If you have chronic pain, meditation is worth looking at. Many guides to meditation are available free, so it’s easy to try.

Fast stats on meditation and chronic pain

  • Chronic pain affects more than 100 million Americans, costing more than $635 billion a year, according to a 2017 study.
  • About 20 percent to 30 percent of adults in the higher-income countries suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2014 meta-analysis.
  • The number of adults using meditation in the United States tripled between 2012 and 2017, increasing from 4.1 percent to 14.2 percent, according to the U.S. National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).
  • The 2012 NHIS of 34,525 Americans found that 63.6 percent of the people who used meditation reported that it helped them a great deal.
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