Mindfulness practices such as meditation have long been used to improve focus and the ability to deal with stress, but is it possible that meditation can reduce back pain? While the body’s acute pain response is very straightforward, people who experience chronic back pain (or nearly whole-body chronic pain, as with fibromyalgia) may find relief difficult to come by because pain has become something other than just physical. New evidence is mounting that meditation may be just the thing that bridges the mind-body gap and helps back pain sufferers to find some relief.
When an acute pain event occurs (e.g., you cut your finger), your body sends pain signals along the afferent nerves to the central nervous system where the brain recognizes the signal and classifies it as pain. This type of pain sense, as in when a bodily tissue is damaged, is called nociception, and in many cases it is quickly and easily resolved.
Chronic pain, including chronic back pain, does not function in the same way. In some cases, even after the visible injury is healed, pain persists. There are at least 12 separate types of pain, including things like phantom limb pain and fibromyalgia, where there is a lack of visible tissue damage or any type of injury. This type of pain seems to bypass the typical model of nociception and enter into the realm of the unknown. In these cases, the person may start to become the pain. Who they are affects how they experience pain in terms intensity, location, duration, and persistence.
This is where meditation can begin to help.
A person suffering from back pain can control their perception of and response to that pain by practicing mindfulness techniques. Meditation can help control the emotional response to pain. Some research has shown that meditation not only alters the evaluative and anticipatory effects of a person experiencing pain but also physically alters their brain in such a way that the perception of pain is reduced. In other words, meditation can help a person with back pain be less anxious about the pain while at the same time strengthening the neural defenses against pain so that the body physically feels less pain.
Here’s how it works:
1. Meditation focuses on the present moment
If back pain is present, the focus is on the back pain. You don’t focus on how much the pain with affect things that you have to do or worry about how bad it will be. The focus stays on what is happening in the present time, not an hour from now or two days ago. This works to eliminate anxiety surrounding a flare-up.
2. Meditation controls breathing
People in pain tend to take short, shallow breaths that send signals to the brain that an emergency is happening in the body. The body responds by tensing muscles to fight or flee, and the heart rate increases. These physical responses trigger an emotional response akin to panic or anxiety. When meditating, breath slows and deepens. You might count breaths, making exhales longer than inhales to signal the brain that it is okay to empty the lungs fully.
3. Meditation accepts what is
Meditation says that yes, back pain is present, but it is simply back pain. It doesn’t require any other response. It hurts, it isn’t particularly fun or easy to deal with, but worrying about it and developing anxiety isn’t helpful. In some cases, removing the need to worry about the back pain seems to provide instant relief.
4. Meditation provides coping skills
The other benefit of meditation is that it helps create coping skills when in the midst of a pain flare-up. The deep, slow breathing can help relax tense muscles that may be contributing to the pain, providing something else to focus on. Meditators can develop an inner dialogue that helps them work through pain. While this may not eliminate pain altogether, it can dampen its impact on everyday life by removing the evaluation of the pain that often intensifies it.
There are many ways to meditate that can be implemented safely and easily. There are no side effects to this practice, and treatment can be started for free.
Sit and breathe
The act of sitting and slowly breathing in and out can make a tremendous impact on pain levels. One study found that simply sitting and focusing on the breath for 20 minutes a day significantly reduced the perception of pain.
Use a quick tool
Pixel Thoughts uses a quick, 60-second meditation on the computer to re-focus on what is really happening. Place your stressful thought in the bubble, breathe deeply, and watch the thought fade into the universe. It may seem like a silly little thing that won’t have an effect, but it’s one minute out of the day, with no side effects.
Try guided meditation
Guided meditations may be best for the new practitioner who feels like he or she needs a little instruction. Meditations can range in length from a few minutes to an hour, and there are many different options to be found for free online.
Often referred to as “yogic sleep,” yoga nidra is another type of guided meditation that can be used for deep relaxation along with stress and pain relief. For those just starting out, guided yoga nidra is best done when guided. Combine it with restorative yoga poses such as legs up the wall and supported child’s pose for a full-body experience.
The practice of meditation for back pain is gaining support as research as to its effectiveness grows. Have you tried meditation for back pain? What did you think?
Image by liz west via Flickr