Chronic pain is a prevalent disease, affecting 1 in 10 U.S. adults, according a 2012 national survey . Commonly these patients are prescribed opioids to dull the physical experience of their pain. This has led to an opioid epidemic - in 2012 alone there were enough opioid prescriptions written for every adult in the U.S. to have a bottle of pills!
To address this issue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently advised that those suffering from chronic pain seek the use of alternative therapies before resorting to opioid use.
Pain is a complex and multifaceted experience that goes beyond just the sensory experience of pain. Many factors affect the experience of pain, such as one’s emotional state or the way that one thinks. This subjective nature of the pain experience means that there is a multitude of ways to reduce one’s pain experience apart from popping pills.
Mindfulness meditation can alter the subjective experience of pain. Although Buddhist monks have been claiming this for thousands of years, research has only begun to verify this within the last 30 years or so. Just this past summer a comprehensive review was published detailing just exactly how mindfulness meditation diminishes pain, specifically by looking at the mechanisms within the brain.
What it boils down to is this: our experience of pain is dependent upon our appraisal and interpretation of the sensory experience of pain, as well as the meaning which we assign to it. Although we cannot alter the physical sensation of pain, we do have control over how we experience that pain.
This is exactly what researchers found when examining the brains of long-term meditators. In response to a painful stimulus, the areas of the brain associated with processing sensory information (such as a hot probe) were highly active, while the areas associated with pain appraisal (the areas that would assign meaning to the pain) showed decreased activation – even in a non-meditative state. (1 , 2)
The beneficial effect of mindfulness meditation on the pain experience is not just reserved for monks with decades of experience, or even for those wealthy enough to participate in a two-month long course… it is open and available to all who have the willingness to sit, breathe, and just be.
In fact, in 2011 the authors of the aforementioned review found that the experience of pain is diminished after only four 20-minute mindfulness meditation training sessions – that’s only 80 minutes!
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to feel and experience what is – but also to refrain from explaining and contextualizing that experience. Instead of comparing our current pain to past experiences and assigning it meaning, we simply say, “I am experiencing pain.” By refraining from contextualizing the pain, we effectively decrease our experience of the pain.
For those of you who experience chronic pain, please understand: this does not mean that you should go throw all of your pain pills away to sit down and focus on your breath. But it does mean that there are practices available – such as mindfulness meditation – that can complement your current treatment and help you cope with that pain more effectively.
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