Meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is having a moment in medical news. From Anderson Cooper’s 60 Minutes profile on mindfulness meditation to schools implementing mindfulness training to help students deal with stress and anxiety, meditation is gaining ground as a complementary treatment for chronic conditions, including pain.
Mindfulness meditation asks a person to slow down and focus on their breath. Sitting comfortably, meditators don’t try to eliminate all thought and sensation; rather, they allow thoughts to come and go, continuing to return to the sensation of their breath. Here are four reasons to add meditation to your chronic pain treatment plan.
1. Slows age-related gray matter loss
Although not specifically related to chronic pain, the health of a person’s brain plays a huge role in the quality of a person’s life. Starting in the mid-20s, our brains begin to age, with the actual volume and weight of the brain decreasing as we get older. As we age, brain function begins to feel the impact of this decrease in gray matter.
Researchers at UCLA wanted to find out if those who meditated regularly were able to preserve their gray matter to protect their brain health. They found large areas of preserved gray matter in the brains of those who meditated regularly.
Dr. Florian Kurth, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center, was shocked at the difference, saying:
“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating. Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”
The researchers caution that there are many factors that could influence this result, including overall lifestyle factors, but they believe that this provides concrete evidence of meditation’s ability to make changes in the brain.
2. Decreases perception of pain
The proof of meditation’s ability to change the brain also influences the next benefit of meditation for chronic pain patients. Meditation has multiple benefits on a person’s perception of pain, with one study showing how meditators can reduce their perception of pain with just one 20-minute session a day.
Other studies highlighted how meditators were able to “turn down” the volume of pain by cultivating mindfulness. University of North Carolina Charlotte psychologists Fadel Zeidan, Nakia S. Gordon, Junaid Merchant, and Paula Goolkasian conducted the first study and were amazed at not only the effects of meditation but also the speed with which results were achieved. Not only that, Zeidan pointed out the last effects of meditation, saying:
“This study is the first study to demonstrate the efficacy of such a brief intervention on the perception of pain. Not only did the meditation subjects feel less pain than the control group while meditating but they also experienced less pain sensitivity while not meditating.”
3. Brings about change on a cellular level
In a breast cancer study out of Alberta Health Services Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary department of oncology, researchers found that practicing mindfulness meditation had a physical effect on a cellular level. Breast cancer survivors who practiced mindfulness meditation had longer telomeres – the protein complex found at the end of chromosomes – while those who did not had shorter ones. Shorter telomeres are associated with several diseases, including breast cancer, as well as increased rate of aging.
Dr. Linda E. Carlson, PhD, principal investigator and director of research in the psychosocial resources department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre had this to say about the results:
“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology.”
4. Reduces anxiety and depression as much as medication
Chronic pain is often accompanied by mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. These two disorders can increase the perception of pain and make the patient more sensitive to lower levels of pain.
An analysis of existing research also showed that just 30 minutes of meditation a day could ameliorate the effects of depression and anxiety just as well as prescription medications for these two disorders. This research review covered over 45 trials with a total of 3,515 patients who experienced an improvement in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even pain after undergoing an eight-week mindfulness meditation training and practicing for 30 to 40 minutes a day.
Starting a mindfulness meditation practice is as simple as taking a comfortable seat and breathing in and out. Sit tall to allow the breath to flow easily through the body, but don’t strain to straighten the back. Some people find it more comfortable to sit on a cushion or a pillow. Focus on the breath flowing in and out through your nose, cool on the inhale and warm on the exhale. When your mind wanders, as it will, bring it gently back to the breath. Start with brief periods, maybe five or ten minutes, gradually working up to 30 minutes a day.
Zeidan, lead author of the UNC study that found meditation changed the perception of pain, stressed that not only was meditation effective but also that it is quick and easy to access and learn, saying:
“People who want to make use of the technique might not need a meditation facilitator — they might be able to get the necessary training off the internet. All you have to do is use your mind, change the way you look at the perception of pain and that, ultimately, might help alleviate the feeling of that pain.”
Change your mind, heal your pain? What do you think?