Ease Pain with Meditation
Living with pain can make everyday activities challenging — or even unbearable. It is estimated that about one in four adults around the world suffer from chronic pain. It’s the most common reason people seek health care and the leading cause of disability worldwide.
Opioid medications, once thought to be the solution, have led to their own crisis of suffering. In the race to find relief, researchers are increasingly looking at non-pharmaceutical solutions like meditation — and the results have been exciting. Let’s dig into what the science has to say.
Your Brain on Meditation
If you’ve ever taken up a new exercise routine, you’ve seen how the body can change and adapt. What’s less easy to observe is that our brains can change, too.
The brain continually reorganizes its neural pathways. This ability, known as neuroplasticity, allows us to navigate unfamiliar places, learn new skills, switch up our habits, and heal from trauma. As we repeat an action, we strengthen the neural connections related to that task, which is why consistency is critical for making new habits stick.
Several studies have shown that consistent meditation practice can rewire the brain through neuroplasticity. A 2011 study of participants before and after they underwent an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program even observed the visible effects.
The people in the program showed increased gray matter (meaning more processing power) in the hippocampus, which is associated with memories and emotional control, and less in the amygdala, which is associated with stress, fear, and anxiety.
Just like lifting weights to get stronger, we can exercise our brains to strengthen favorable connections. Each time we return our focus to our breath during meditation, for example, we are training our brains to maintain concentration. Research suggests we can also improve the way we handle pain.
Why Mindset Matters
Pain medications like opioids work by blocking pain signals between the brain and the body. Meditation does something different.
Roundglass Research Lead and Neuroscientist David Vago, Ph.D., says meditation decreases the intensity of pain in three ways: by encouraging a nonjudgmental attitude toward pain, by increasing the production of endorphins and other pain-relieving chemicals in the body, and by activating areas of the brain that are involved in the regulation of pain and emotions.
This third effect is what has researchers riveted. Meditation's impact on the brain reduces the emotional component of pain — like fear and distress. When we uncouple our emotional reaction from the physical sensation, the pain actually hurts less. “Meditation practice is not going to make pain go away, but it can help people handle the unpleasantness of the pain,” says Roundglass Senior Scientist Rebecca Acabchuk, Ph.D.
In his study on mindfulness meditation–based pain relief, Vago and his fellow researchers write that our “previous experiences, expectations, mood, conditioning, desires, sensitization/habituation, and other cognitive factors can dramatically amplify and/or attenuate pain.” In other words, how we feel about pain in the moment determines its intensity. People who show up in the dentist’s chair feeling calm usually do have a more pleasant experience.
If just the thought of a dental probe makes you anxious, there’s good news: Over time, meditation can alter our brains through neuroplasticity to better deal with pain. Acabchuk says regular meditation practice helps strengthen the anterior cingulate and insular cortex, which are associated with interoceptive awareness (our perception of the body’s inner state) and pain processing. It also enhances the connection between the prefrontal cortex and emotion centers, helping us regulate emotions like fear and anxiety that can worsen pain.
How to Use Meditation for Pain Relief
As the supporting research continues to pile up, some hospitals are investigating how to integrate meditation into their surgery management strategies. It’s important to note, however, that meditation isn’t a quick fix — it requires consistency. Still, don’t let that deter you. “While alleviation of chronic pain through meditation certainly takes practice, as little as four 20-minute sessions have proven to help reduce the intensity and unpleasantness of pain,” says Vago.
The most effective meditation style to manage pain is the one you’re more likely to stick with. So, try out a few and choose what appeals to you most. Here are several options that have research to back them up:
Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and paying attention to one's thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment. Both Vago and Acabchuk say there is substantial evidence that mindfulness meditation can reduce the perceived intensity and unpleasantness of pain.
A 2021 study found that practicing mindful self-compassion helped with chronic pain. “Self-compassion promotes a proactive attitude towards self-care and actively seeking relief from suffering,” the researchers wrote.
Body Scan Meditation
This ultra-relaxing meditation style involves lying down or sitting comfortably and focusing on each part of the body, one at a time, to ease tension and discomfort.
In this type of meditation, practitioners repeat a word or phrase to help quiet the mind and ease stress. Vago says that transcendental meditation, a form of mantra meditation, has been shown to reduce the perception of pain, particularly for individuals with chronic pain.
Side Effects May Include Equanimity
The Buddhist text "Contemplation of Feeling" poetically captured — some 2,000 years ago — the essence of what scientists are now discovering about meditation for pain relief:
"When the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, laments, weeps and is distraught. It is as if the man were pierced by two darts, a physical and mental dart.
But in the case of a well-taught disciple, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by the first but not second dart."
The first dart, pain itself, will inevitably find us throughout our lives. But with practice, research suggests the second dart, our emotional distress, can be overcome. If you are suffering, meditation may be worth exploring, particularly because it is so widely accessible and costs nothing to begin. There are a few known side effects, however. They include less stress, greater focus, and feelings of bliss.
We have a library of meditation and mindfulness practices to help you manage pain and difficult emotions. Download the Roundglass app to find what's right for you.
- Studies show that meditation can rewire the brain to better handle pain.
- Meditation can't make pain go away, but it can ease our emotional distress, so the pain feels less unpleasant and intense.
- While results require consistency, as little as four 20-minute sessions have proven to help reduce the intensity and unpleasantness of pain.
- The most effective meditation style for managing pain is the one you’re most likely to stick with.