We’ve talked a lot about the relationship between meditation and pain and the valuable role that mindfulness plays in the equation. However, we have yet to delve into the research behind the relationship between mediation and pain management.
We thought we would take some time to look at some of the science supporting this relationship by sharing some recent research studies that either directly or indirectly supports the role that mediation plays in addressing chronic pain.
Harvard University and MIT study of how meditation relieves pain
A study carried out by Harvard University and MIT in the spring of 2011 focused on the neural mechanisms behind why meditation helps to relieve pain symptoms.
The study involved 12 participants who had not previously practiced meditation. Half of these participants were asked to carry out a guided audio meditation for 45 minutes per day, after receiving two and a half hours of initial training in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). For the first two weeks of the study participants learned to pay close attention to body sensations overall and in certain parts of the body. They also practiced disengaging and shifting their focus to another area of the body.
The results of the study showed that people who were trained to meditate over an 8 week period were better able to control a specific type of brain wave called alpha rhythms. These waves flow through cells in the brain’s cortex, the home of sensory information, and help to suppress irrelevant or distracting sensory information, such as pain. Scans of the participants brains were conducted prior to the study, at the 3 week mark, and at the end of the study. Those participants who had meditated showed larger and more frequent changes in the size of their alpha waves when asked to focus on a certain body part. Although the participants did not suffer from chronic pain, the study shows that pain management through mediation is possible as it allows for a shift in focus away from a painful area in the body, not unlike turning down the volume of loud music. Lower stress levels were also reported by participants who noted that they were no longer as reactive to their situations.
University of Massachusetts Medical School study of using meditation to manage back pain
A study conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 2009, examined the effects of a 10 week MBSR program on 51 patients with chronic pain who were already undergoing various medical and physical therapies for their chronic pain. All subjects were interviewed before and after completion the program and were also asked to complete a follow up questionnaire at 2.5, 7 and 11 months post intervention. Each subject acted as his/her own control.
The results of the study, documented in the Indian Journal of Anaesthesia, showed that patients had made significant progress in the areas of improved energy, pain management, and coping skills. A follow up study by Kabat-Zinn also showed a reduction in present moment pain, negative body image, and of activity restricted by pain. Positive effects on mood disturbances and psychological symptoms including anxiety and depression were noted. Other findings of the secondary study included a decrease in pain medication use and an improvement in activity levels.
A four year post-study follow up of all 225 involved study participants showed a high level of compliance with continued meditation practices.
These studies show that there is a clear connection between a routine of mindfulness and the successful long-term management of chronic pain. Adding meditation to your daily routine when suffering from chronic pain can only be beneficial, even in small doses. We hope you’ll give it a try.
To your inner healing – Anna