Does Meditation Relief Pain?

Pain: an alert signal

When we hurt ourselves, it triggers a pain that alerts us and invites us to find a solution. This is the typical case of a splinter in the foot or a burn with a furnace. The information returns to the brain, along the nerves, to warn us: we must not remain in this position, in this situation! A good way to work these symptoms is to consider that these discomforts are phenomena. In meditation, the pain is not us. It is a part of our body whose nerve endings are activated. If we can see pain as a warning process, we can take a step back. Acute pain does not last long. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is a real health problem.

What complicates the situation in chronic pain is that we aspire to an ideal world. We run away from what is unpleasant, we have an aversion to what is bad. And we throw ourselves into medication at the first headache that lasts a little while… Suffering? No way! However, pain is not suffering: suffering is the consequence of physical or emotional pain. It is what we make of pain, the interpretation we give it, the judgment. Suffering is one of the possibilities of reacting to pain, but it is not the only one.

practice meditation for pain relief

Meditation soothes chronic pain

Unfortunately, in chronic pain, when painkillers and all treatments have proven ineffective, meditation for pain relief cannot erase the symptoms. But it can provide relief by changing our perspective, our experience. Without suppressing the pain, we can see it differently and influence it. Numerous studies conducted by the University of Massachusetts attest to the benefits of meditation for pain relief on all types of pain. Meditators experience lasting relief, improved body image, and mood. Much more than in patients who only take medication.

Scientists are convinced that meditators react less violently to pain because certain areas of the brain are activated more moderately. These are the areas responsible for cognition (prefrontal cortex), emotion (amygdala), and memory (hippocampus).

A decrease in the activation of pain circuits was also observed. These results represent a small revolution. We now know how to “neutralize” certain areas of the brain normally involved. Meditation for pain relief generates a particular state of mind that disconnects, in a way, the circuit: we dissociate the cognitive and the sensory, it is not because we think we have pain that it is true.

Meditation soothes chronic pain

Meditation changes the brain

For Christian Hoenner, clinical psychologist, mindfulness meditation instructor, and co-author of Relieving Pain Through Meditation (1), these results are neither surprising nor very new. The proof: “In 1985, the work of the American doctor of molecular biology Jon Kabat-Zinn demonstrated that meditation could reduce the intensity of pain and, above all, its emotional impact in the case of chronic pain,” says the professional. Considered in the past as a philosophical and spiritual tradition reserved for Buddhists, from the 1980s it became a field that science explored under the impetus of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (2), who created the Mind and Life Institute, dedicated to the study of “contemplative science”. In 2000, he asked researchers to study the brain activity of Buddhist meditators for 15 years. The first beneficial effects of this practice were discovered.

“At the beginning, research focused on the clinical application of meditation, in the management of stress, chronic pain or even in the prevention of depression relapses. From the 2000s onwards, we sought to establish the link between the brain and the exercise of meditation,” says Antoine Lutz, a researcher at Inserm in Lyon, author of several studies on the “meditating brain”. And the link is simple: meditation modifies the brain. More specifically, it activates certain brain areas. Those related to anxiety, for example, are less active in experienced meditators than in novices, according to an article published in February in the scientific journal Pour la science (2). During the U.S. scientists’ experiment, MRI scans of volunteers showed that mindfulness meditation for pain activated areas of the brain related to pain control. On the other hand, the slower breathing generated by meditation would also lead to a state of relaxation, which could help with the pain.

In the last ten years, scientific articles have been published highlighting all the applications of meditation: “We study how it can develop intelligence and play in the cognitive development of the child; the ability to concentrate and improve social interactions, for example,” explains Antoine Lutz. In Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, and northern Europe, some schools have even introduced this practice in their classrooms to improve children’s well-being and attention.

Clinical psychologist and osteopath, Christian Hoenner is now dedicated to teaching mindfulness meditation. Recognized for its ability to combat stress, anxiety, and depression, it also offers the possibility of “looking pain in the face” to better cope with its manifestations. In his latest book, co-written with psychotherapist Phanie Ridel, the psychologist proposes exercises that allow you to “look at the pain” to better keep it at bay afterward.

Pain Problems

What does meditation for pain relief do?

The study published in JAMA compares a group of people treated with analgesics with another panel that followed meditation for pain relief sessions. The results were clear: patients in the second group experienced a 51% improvement in pain and mobility, while the first group experienced only 27% relief. Dr. Coudron explains that meditation relaxes the muscles. “The whole body relaxes,” he says.

It also allows us to change our relationship with pain. By accepting it, we free ourselves from the negative emotions that aggravate and maintain the pain.

The technique studied by the researchers is mindfulness, a traditional method stripped of its spiritual aspects. It requires no prior knowledge: anyone can try it.

Beware, this is not relaxation! Meditation for pain relief is an active attitude in which the senses are awake. We learn to detach ourselves from our emotions and sensations to reach, throughout the practice, inner peace.

Meditation changes the brain

Two mechanisms at play in chronic pain

Physicians have identified at least two mechanisms involved in chronic back pain, and meditation seems particularly well suited to address them.

  • Pain causes the body to react defensively. The muscles, in particular, tighten to form contractures. “The patient reduces his movements as much as possible and the joints stiffen,” adds Dr. Coudron. The less he moves, the worse the problem becomes.
  • The brain is also known to play an important role in the chronification of pain. Thanks to advances in brain imaging, researchers have observed how the sensation of pain eventually evolves on its own, fueled by stress and anxiety. It is not uncommon for the original injury to disappear completely, but for low back pain to persist due to these self-aggravating phenomena.

meditation for pain relief 2

How to practice meditation for pain relief

Observe the alternating pain:

“Chronic pain is there, but instead of putting energy into distancing it, we’ll look at it from the inside,” he explains.

Conduct of the exercise:

If you have, for example, an inflammation of the carpal tunnel in the left wrist, start by observing the sensations inside the other wrist (the one that does not hurt): this facilitates the entry into the meditative posture. When you are sufficiently focused on this non-painful wrist, move to the left wrist, simply observing everything that happens inside it and the form the pain takes. Then return your attention to the non-painful wrist and so on….

“This exercise allows you to gradually feel both wrists equally. By alternating the sensations, we manage to give them equal importance. In this way, the pain does not lose its presence, but its strength,” explains Christian Hoenner.

Observe the pain by counting up and counting down:

“This exercise is proposed when pain leaves little respite and attacks at regular intervals. Its aim is to allow an increasingly longer period of time between each wave of pain.”

Conduct of the exercise

Start by identifying the location on the body where the pain begins (e.g., the left toe for pain radiating from the toes to the hip). Start counting down to the onset of pain by going as slowly as possible from 10 to 1. Counting backward requires more concentration than normal counting and helps you to be “in the numbers” rather than in what is causing the pain. When the wave of pain subsides, count normally from 1 to 10, again slowly. If a new wave of pain appears, start the count again in reverse and so on.

“As the exercise progresses, the sufferer will find that it is possible to count more and more time between each spasm. In other words, the pain will be silent for longer and longer periods.

These exercises are not “magic”, but are a matter of practice, like all mindfulness meditation exercises. Do not be discouraged if the effects are not immediate.

Do not hesitate to ask for help

When one begins to meditate, it is not uncommon to have questions or problems. Most of the time, they are related to getting carried away. By dint of wanting to calm down at all costs, we end up becoming tense, irritated, and we multiply negative thoughts such as “I’ll never get it” or “it hurts too much”…

The solution is to refocus on the breath. If this seems too difficult, do not hesitate to make an appointment with a meditation teacher, take a course or read books written especially for beginners like Meditating Day by Day, by psychiatrist Christophe André, The Art of Meditation, by Matthieu Ricard, or Savoir pour guérir, la méditation en 10 questions, by Dr. Bourgognon.

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