Can meditation really reduce chronic pain?
The answer is, maybe.
Mindfulness meditation is said to have many health benefits - reducing stress and anxiety, decreasing depression and increasing happiness.
Progressive relaxation (a form of mindfulness meditation) can improve sleep quality, reduce muscle tension and lower blood pressure.
My university had produced a guided progressive relaxation CD for staff and students to use to better manage stress and high workloads.
I’d also come across the progressive relaxation technique and a few breathing patterns in yoga classes.
Meditation helps you relax
On nights where sleep was avoiding me, I’d gradually focus on and try to relax each joint and muscle, starting from the toes, ending with my scalp. Sometimes, I’d have to run through this a few times before becoming sleepy, but sometimes I’d be asleep before I made it to my hips.
As a sleep-aid, this progressive relaxation meditation was very helpful.
It was also useful for spot-relaxing areas that were getting treated by physiotherapists. Breathe into the pain and will the muscles to relax.
But I’d never meditated during the day.
Beginning a meditation practice
Sitting in silence and stilling my mind for even just 5 minutes was impossible. I’d fidget, hurt, and my mind would run off and get busy stressing over something.
The only time I could stay still was when I was trying to fall asleep.
Using a candle to focus my attention was a good idea - I love candles. Except now I have two curious cats, and headaches that don’t like bright spots.
So, no candles for meditating.
Meditation apps were becoming popular. Headspace and Calm were the two biggest and most popular, but I also looked at Buddhify. There are many more apps out there, but I just wanted to get started, and limited my testing.
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The free introductory programs on both Headspace and Calm, showed me that I did well when guided in meditation, rather than just sitting in silence.
The Buddhify app is for being mindful when on the go. I found this less helpful for pain and PTSD management.
Andy’s voice and explanations on Headspace were my favorite, but unfortunately, their customer service didn’t respond to a couple of questions I had. Plus, a Headspace subscription is quite expensive.
The background noise of rain on leaves was so wonderfully relaxing on Calm, that it encouraged me to purchase a year’s subscription.
The introduction programs start with 5-10 minute short meditations, and increases gradually when you continue onto the longer programs.
Calm has a number of other meditations that you can dip into as you want - mostly body scan meditations of different lengths, with affirmations.
How meditation is helping me
Currently, I’m on a 50+ day streak of meditating every day, using 10-15 minute guided meditations once or twice a day.
The body scan meditations for sleep are as I’ve always used when insomnia hit. I listen to these whenever I’m having trouble nodding off.
However, adding an extra meditation session during the day has helped me manage my chronic pain a little better.
I get less upset and stressed when things ‘go wrong’, or when someone says something that hurts me.
It’s also helping a little to deal with flashbacks (cPTSD), although I’m still struggling with this at the moment.
Meditation is not a miracle ‘cure’. The pain is still there. It just interferes less - there is less anger, less tension, less anxiety, and a little less pain.
If it’s a placebo effect, that’s fine by me.
But research indicates there might be something physical that happens when you meditate.
Meditation changes your brain for the better
It’s been shown in studies with MRIs, that the brain actually changes during meditation. And these neuroplastic changes stick around afterwards, when you meditate regularly.
Meditation may also decrease activity in the pain network areas in the brain for some people.
An 8 week trial for new meditators by Massachusetts General Hospital showed improvements in the hippocampus (learning, memory) and pre-frontal cortex (decision making, compassion, perspective), and the amygdala was quietened (reduced stress and emotional response). The trial noted that previous research has shown thickening in the cerebral cortex (attention, focus).
In a small study, meditation seemed to reduce the severity of migraine headaches. Another small trial suggested that mindfulness can reduce the impact of chronic back pain.
And although this larger randomized study showed not much effect on the actual chronic pain, the secondary problems of anxiety, depression and acceptance of pain were improved with mindfulness meditation.
Depression and anxiety reduction, slight pain reduction, less use of medication, improved life-quality outlook and enjoyment - meditation certainly has a place in managing chronic illness.
Is meditation addictive or dangerous?
I once had a fantastic English class, where students argued about the dangers of meditation.
Some were convinced it was like a drug, addictive and dangerous - you could lose your life, one argued!
Luckily, no studies have shown that meditation is dangerous.
Do you meditate?
Does it help you deal with your chronic illness or pain?
Do you have a favorite meditation technique or app?