Meditation and relaxation techniques can help with pain relief by improving coping, decreasing pain sensations, and helping you relax.
Living with pain is difficult because pain interferes with life activities and decreases mood. The science behind why meditation helps relieve pain is below, or you may want to try one of these exercises:
Pain includes sensory (physical) affective (emotional) and cognitive (thinking) components. Meditation may impact all of these (Morone et al. 2008, Zeidan et al. 2011) and can alter the subjective experience of pain. (Zeidan et al. 2011).
Meditation is the act of focusing the mind, usually through concentration on a word, sound, or phrase (called transcendental meditation), or passively being aware of thoughts (called mindfulness) (Teixeira 2008).
The science behind why meditation helps to with pain relief is complex, but in brief, here is how meditation reduces pain:
Meditation can help with the emotional states that make pain worse, such as depression and anxiety, and increase emotional states that make pain more manageable, such as happiness and a state of calm (Morone et al. 2008, Chiesa & Serretti 2011, Rosenzweig et al. 2010, Mills & Farrow 1981, Carroll & Seers 1998, Teixeira 2008, Wachholtz et al. 2005). Natural pain relief can be achieved through these changes in emotional state.
Meditation teaches the ability to more effectively handle distress and regulate emotions, and overall can improve coping skills that can lead to better pain management (Rosenzweig et al. 2010, Wachholtz & Pargament 2005).
Meditation can provide natural pain relief by changing the way information is processed in the brain. Meditation can also provide a distraction from pain (Morone et al. 2008), which helps the pain feel less intense.
Paradoxically, meditation can also reduce pain through paying attention to the pain experience rather than ignoring it (Morone et al. 2008). A meditative state can allow a person to achieve detached observation, in which the physical sensations are separated from the emotional and cognitive experiences of pain (Morone et al. 2008), resulting in pain relief.
In theory meditation can help people transcend their pain by improving awareness and acceptance (Chiesa & Serretti 2011, Teixeira 2008). Meditation can change the way people relate to symptoms (Chiesa & Serretti 2011), resulting in a less judgemental, non-evaluative stance toward pain (Salomons & Kucyi 2011, Zeidan et al. 2011) and less attachment to pain (Wachholtz & Pargament 2005). These changes in thinking allow the pain experience to be less distressing, and result in pain relief not through simply feeling less pain, but through improved pain tolerance.
Physical changes associated with meditation can contribute to the analgesic effects of meditation (Salomons & Kucyi 2011). Meditation results in more awareness (Chiesa & Serretti 2011, Teixeira 2008) and monitoring of one’s physical state (Rosenzweig et al. 2010) in order to recognize subtle sensations and become aware of pain sooner (Morone et al. 2008). This increased awareness may lead to behaviors that involve taking better care of the body (Rosenzweig et al. 2010) and intervening earlier to prevent pain (Morone et al. 2008).
Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, described by Benson (1975) as the Relaxation Response, results in a number of physical changes that can help to reduce pain (Morone et al. 2008, Rosenzweig et al. 2010), such as decreased muscle tension and the possible release of pain relieving neurotransmitters (Morone et al. 2008).
Pain-reducing behaviors and reduced tension are not the only changes that occur with meditation. Structural changes in the brain and nervous system occur as a result of meditation as well (Salomons & Kucyi 2011).
In a study by Wachholtz et al. (2005), spiritual meditation was significantly more effective than secular meditation at improving pain tolerance. Participants who used spiritual meditation techniques were more effectively able to cope with the same intensity of pain while experiencing less distress. Wachholtz et al. (2005) theorize that spirituality itself can impact pain, and that perhaps the inherent spirituality of meditation plays a role in pain relief.
The following exercises can help with pain relief:
Benson, H. (1975). The Relaxation Response. New York: Avon Books.
Carroll, D. & Seers, K. (1998). Relaxation for the relief of chronic pain: a systematic review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 27, 476–487.
Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2011). Mindfulness-based interventions for chronic pain: A systematic review of the evidence. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17 (1), 83-93.
Mills, W.W., & Farrow, J.T. (1981). The transcendental meditation technique and acute experimental pain. Psychosomatic Medicine, 43 (2), 157-164.
Morone N.E., Lynch C.S., Greco C.M., Tindle H.A., & Weiner D.K. (2008). “I felt like a new person.” The effects of mindfulness meditation on older adults with chronic pain: Qualitative narrative analysis of diary entries. Journal of Pain, 9 (9), 841-8.
Rosenzweig, S., Greeson, J.M., Reibel, D.K, Green, J.S., Jasser, S.A., & Beasley, D. (2010). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: Variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 68 (1), 29-36.
Salomons T.V., & Kucyi A. (2011). Does meditation reduce pain through a unique neural mechanism? The Journal of Neuroscience, 31 (36), 12705-12707.
Teixeira, E.M. (2008). Meditation as an intervention for chronic pain: An integrative review. Holistic Nursing Practice, 22 (4), 225-234.
Wachholtz, A.B., & Pargament, K.I. (2005). Is spirituality a critical ingredient of meditation? Comparing the effects of spiritual meditation, secular meditation, and relaxation on spiritual, psychological, cardiac, and pain outcomes. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 28 (4), 369-384.
Wong, Y.S., Chan, W.F., Wong, L.R., Chu, M., Lam, Y.K., Mercer, S.W., & Ma, S.H. (2011). Comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction and multidisciplinary intervention programs for chronic pain: A randomized comparative trial. Clinical Journal of Pain, 27 (8), 724-734.
Ziedan, F., Martucci, K.T., Kraft, R.A., Gordon, N.S., McHafie, J.G., & Coghill, R.C. (2011). Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31 (14), 5540-5548.