Can meditation really help reduce pain?

When pain strikes, many of us have routines in place to manage it. Maybe it’s a chronic injury, and you’ve worked out a series of movements with your Orthology provider to offer relief. Maybe it’s a headache, and you reach for a little caffeine. Maybe it’s a recent injury, and you reach for pain medication. 

But have you ever considered meditating for pain management?

If you don’t have a meditation practice, this can seem a little far-fetched. But the science is there to back it up: meditation can change our relationship with pain. 

What does the science say?

Meditation has been shown to change the shape of our brains — specifically it increases cortical thickness and gray matter. So what does that have to do with pain? Well, these changes can aid in reducing our pain sensitivity. In a 2010 study out of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Montreal, structural MRI scans were performed to examine the brains of 17 meditators and 18 controls experiencing pain. The results showed that meditators had “significantly lower pain sensitivity than controls.” 

In a review of the science, findings showed that Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) can make a significant impact in decreasing the intensity of pain for chronic pain patients. In fact, a study out of Wake Forest also showed promising pain reduction results. In this study, 15 healthy volunteers had MRI scans done of their brains while experiencing pain. Over the next few days, those volunteers were taught mindfulness meditation. Then, five days after the initial MRI, the volunteers were scanned while experiencing pain again — once while meditating and another time while just laying still. The results showed a ~40% reduction in pain intensity ratings during the meditation compared with the non-meditation scans. 

How long do the effects last?

Developing a meditation practice can take time, but it’s worth it. Research shows that the benefits of meditation in regards to pain management are actually maintained over time, especially when considered in comparison with other pain-management strategies. Jon Kabat-Zin, renowned researcher in the mindfulness field, and his research team found that people who used mindfulness techniques to manage chronic pain experienced immediate improvements both physically and mentally, but also were still experiencing these improvements up to 15 months later.

And it pairs well with the work you may already be doing with Orthology. In a 2016 study, adults suffering from chronic lower back pain who used mindfulness techniques had greater improvement in functional limitation and pain at both 26 weeks and 52 weeks compared to those who only used drugs and surgery to alleviate chronic lower back pain. 

How do I start a meditation practice?

Meditation has been around for thousands of years, but has really solidified its place in pop culture in the last ten years. But there are still many myths that surround it: you don’t need to shave your head, own a gong, or burn incense to meditate. All you really need is ten relatively-uninterrupted minutes a day. There’s also a misconception that you need absolute silence to meditate. In reality, you can meditate in the airport, on a crowded bus — you could meditate in the middle of a toddler’s birthday party if you really wanted to, though that might be a little advanced for your first time.

To start a practice, choose a time in your day that you can stick to. Attaching meditation to an existing habit can be incredibly helpful in making a new habit stick. Here are some examples:

  • Meditate after you walk the dog
  • Meditate after you put the kids to bed
  • Meditate after you finish work for the day

Scheduling in the time is one of the key factors in creating a new habit. And remember: meditation is not about emptying your mind. Instead, think of meditation as developing a better relationship with your thoughts. A meditation practice allows you to see thoughts, emotions, and sensations without immediately reacting to them. 

It is in that space between feeling pain and reacting to it that we can change our relationship with it.