Meditating for pain relief – How does it work and will it really help?
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Having lived with a chronic condition for over 10 years, I knew I would not be alone in looking for pain relief that didn’t need painkillers. Pain management was not my priority when I began learning Meditation, in fact it was for stress management, as I was desperately searching for ways to improve my mood and mindset and relieve many of the overwhelming thoughts that plagued my brain.
After a Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis in 2011 (about 2 years after I began regularly practicing Meditation) I realised how powerful Meditation can be, as it gave me moments of calm on days my joints screamed in agony. I was (and still am) incredibly grateful to have the tools in place to help manage my pain, and not solely rely on Medication.
As a Meditation instructor since 2012(ish), I’ve seen so many helpful and positive outcomes for those struggling with chronic pain, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, arthritis, IBS and more, as they use Meditation to manage their health, energy and pain levels, so it felt right to address it in my blog.
But I do want to be clear - Meditation can not fix, cure or banish illness, but it can help managing conditions day to day.
But let’s start by getting clear on Meditation itself. Meditation an ancient practice with roots in Buddhism and other Eastern religions, helping you to focus your attention on the present moment and not judge your thoughts in the process. In it’s simplest form it is a relaxation process using your breath, but can feature visualisations, affirmations and other mindful practices.
You don’t have to clear your mind, you don’t have to ‘think of nothing’ and you don’t need to sit in the lotus position or hold complicated finger placements to participate. What you do need is a little time and space to rest and breathe well.
So, however you choose to Meditate, whether it’s a class or group, listening to a guided Meditation online, or just starting to deep breathe for a few minutes at regular moments throughout your day – I encourage you to make time and space to practice.
But how does Meditation relieve pain?
Firstly, Meditation can help relieve chronic pain because the process of relaxing triggers the release of endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers.
Endorphins function through various mechanisms in both the central and peripheral nervous system to relieve pain, helping you feel good, physically and mentally.
Every long, slow (and I mean deliberately slow) exhale sends a message to your parasympathetic nervous system to automatically relax the body.
When your body is more relaxed you become more able to manage pain symptoms as well as chronic conditions.
Meditation has been found to reduce the bodies cortisol levels, with cortisol known as the stress hormone. When stressed and anxious your body is flooded by cortisol to encourage your fight or flight response, this increases your heart rate and blood pressure, but also your bodies inflammation levels.
By reducing your cortisol levels (the right balance is always needed) you can reduce pain and inflammation as well as regulate your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and even strengthen your heart muscles.
Meditation retrains your brain, and actually creates new neural pathways to deal with pain. The neural pathways during Meditation are different pathways in the brain to the ones used with other treatments – meaning your brain is learning new ways to manage chronic pain.
A 2018 study of meditation, mindfulness, and the brain suggested that in the long term, meditation can actually change the structure of your brain, by changing the cortical thickness in some brain areas, which means you actually become less pain sensitive.
And the last point to consider, is that Meditation promotes cognitive disengagement as seen in 2018 studies on the effects of pain relief during Meditation. This may seem very complex, but the take away is that practicing Meditation has been found to help in decoupling between the thalamus region of the brain and praecuneus.
The thalamus is the part of the brain that relays sensory impulses, including pain, from receptors all around your body to the rest of the brain – whilst the praecuneus is part of the brain region activated when individuals are engaged in self-reflection.
Studies have shown links between the thalamus and the praecuneus can drive symptoms of chronic pain – but that mindful Meditation can actually provide pain relief as it helps to unlink the pain-processing thalamus from the self-reflecting praecuneus.
Essentially, because Meditation promotes observing thoughts, feelings and sensations, without attaching to them, we are learning to feel less attached to pain sensations.
Having addressed ‘how it works’, we see a plethora of ways that Meditation can help to relieve pain symptoms, but the next part 'will it really help?' is something only you can discover for yourself.
No matter how many testimonies you read, you will only understand how Meditation helps - when you make time to practice Meditation in a way that suits you.
Love & Light Jennifer
If you’re looking for more mindful support why not enjoy one of our free Meditation or Relaxation sessions when you opt in to receive regular updates.
- Harvard Health Publishing, Mindfulness Meditation To Control Pain (2023) Available from https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/mindfulness-meditation-to-control-pain
(Accessed 06 June 2023)
- Healthline, Meditating For Chronic Pain Management (2023) Available from https://www.healthline.com/health/meditation-for-chronic-pain#new-paths (Accessed 06 June 2023)
- Cleveland Clinic, How You Can Ease Your Aches And Pains With Meditation (2022) Available from https://cle.clinic/3Nc0jGJ (Accessed 05 June 2023)
- Gard, T. et al, Pain Attenuation through Mindfulness is Associated with Decreased Cognitive Control and Increased Sensory Processing In The Brain, National Library of Medicine Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3968314/ (Accessed 05 June 2023)
- Medical News Today, Mindfulness Meditation Changes How The Brain Process And Perceive Pain (2022) Available from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313216#The-search-for-neural-associations-that-underlie-mindfulness (Accessed 05 June 2023)
- NICE, How Common Is It? (2021) Available from https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/chronic-pain/background-information/prevalence/ (Accessed 05 June 2023)
- Parsa, FD et al. Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management (2010), National Library Of Medicine, Available from https://bit.ly/43u4KTi (Accessed 05 June 2023)
- Psych Central, Can Meditation Help With Pain Relief? (2022) Available from https://psychcentral.com/health/meditation-for-pain-relief (Accessed 05 June 2023)
- Psychiatry Online, Neurological Evidence of a Mind-Body Connection: Mindfulness and Pain Control (2018) Available from https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp-rj.2018.130401 (Accessed 04 June 2023)