Chronic Pain, whether it stems from serious illness, surgical procedures, old injuries, myofascial pain disorders or other conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, herpetic neuralgia, various forms of arthritis, or reflex sympathetic dystrophy, can be debilitating to varying degrees.
The scenario differs for every individual but treatment may involve medications, physical therapy and in some cases surgeries. Chronic pain, unlike acute pain which is sudden and intense, is with the sufferer for the long haul, in one way or another.
So how is it possible that chronic pain that hasn't been sufficiently alleviated via conventional methods sometimes improves with meditation?
Let's look at the process.
The cycle of pain, tension, and more pain leading to emotional distress is often what incapacitates a chronic pain sufferer even more than the intensity of the pain experience itself.
Meditation Can Help?
In many cases it can, by disrupting the cycle through deep relaxation, by distracting the mind so that it releases the mental tension associated with the pain cycle and the fear, anger or depression that follows. Okay, that's fine, but how often would we need to meditate to sustain that relief, and wouldn't that make doing anything else pretty much impossible? Good question! Let's learn more.
Not only does meditation promote deep relaxation, but it also promotes slower breathing that calms the entire being. Slower breathing usually means deeper breathing, so that better oxygenation takes place. People who report relief from pain through meditation usually engage in its practice regularly, once or twice daily, for 20 or 30 minutes each time. Because this can sound daunting, I suggest 5 minutes as a starting point if 20 feels impossible at first.
There is nothing mysterious about the practice of meditation, even if we tend to think of the Buddha and other Eastern mystics when we hear the word. It is true that meditation is an ancient practice, and it is generally viewed as both a spiritual one and a physical one. Usually we sit, on the floor when we can, but it is easily done in a chair, on a cushion or even with a low bench.
Proof That It Works
A number of research studies have been conducted to examine the effects of meditation on chronic pain.
Here are some for you to consult and share with your pain management team if you find them useful:
Anecdotes Can be Instructive, If not Empirical
When reviewing the clinical literature, most social scientists agree that peer-reviewed studies and reports are the best indication of the significance of the results they publish. I am no different in my career as a clinical psychologist. The articles listed above appear in respected peer-reviewed journals. In selecting them I chose not to include research here involving any "brand" of meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation (TM), even though I practiced TM before learning any other form. Why not? Because sometimes the research had been paid for by TM as an organization or only utilized TM and no other type of meditation. Some of that research has been criticized and wouldn't likely carry much weight with the professionals who are working with you.
However, sometimes we hear something from an individual that really makes an impression. If this impression leads us to try something we might not do otherwise, and if we benefit from trying it, then that anecdote carries as much weight, to us, as a peer-reviewed study. So here is a recent anecdote of my own.I recently saw my rheumatologist in a follow-up after last year's treatment for a femoral fracture and ensuing full recovery. I told him how much better I was feeling now, and we also discussed a chronic pain issue I've struggled with for years which he also treats. I said I meditate twice daily and believe it has helped me greatly. He immediately saluted this and said that relaxation practices such as meditation have been proved to benefit chronic pain conditions. Then we discussed my blood pressure. It had gone from 120/80 to 98/60. He was impressed! I should add that he has prescribed swimming for my pain issues in the past and I am following his recommendation to do that several times a week. Make of this what you will!