Chronic pain – defined as “persistent or recurring pain lasting longer than 3 months – affects roughly one in five Canadians. Chronic pain can negatively impact the quality of life by interfering with sleep, physical function, professional life, social life and familial relationships. Sometimes, having chronic pain can leave you feeling helpless, but did you know that practicing meditation and mindfulness has actually been shown to help with chronic pain? Mindfulness is defined as an intentional and non-judgmental present moment awareness, and it can actually change the way your mind interprets pain.
Pain is often initiated via a straightforward process, such as injury or disease. However, the causes of chronic pain are complex. Factors such as high levels of anxiety and depression are predictive of more severe chronic pain and disability. Additionally, how individuals interpret their pain impacts the likelihood of chronic pain development and persistence. For example, a person may experience back pain and interpret it as a sign of inevitable deterioration that will stop them from engaging in activities they enjoy, or an avid runner who begins to feel pain at the end of long runs may conclude that they must have surgery to “fix” their knee. These interpretations of pain are a form of worst-case scenario thinking, called pain catastrophizing, and play a role in the development and maintenance of chronic pain.
What is mindfulness meditation and how can it help manage chronic pain?
Mindfulness meditation has been described as “moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way”, and it has been shown to reduce pain and improve function in individuals suffering from chronic pain, even when compared to other commonly used pain treatments. It has also been shown to increase pain acceptance allowing individuals to better cope with their residual pain.
Mindfulness meditation also seems to address the mental aspects of chronic pain. It has been shown to relieve depression anxiety and stress associated with chronic pain and has been recommended as a treatment strategy. Additionally, it has been shown to reduce ruminations, and pain catastrophizing commonly associated with chronic pain perpetuation. Overall, mindfulness meditation seems to improve physical health, mental health and quality of life and is a potential tool that can be used to address chronic pain, reducing suffering and improving well-being.
Getting started with mindfulness meditation
It can seem daunting for newcomers to begin practicing mindfulness meditation. For those unfamiliar with mindfulness, it can seem like lengthy courses are necessary to realize the benefits of practice, but research indicates that this assumption is untrue.
Studies have shown that self-directed use of a smartphone application to guide meditation can enhance cerebral connectivity in brain regions involved with emotion and reward while also reducing pain intensity for individuals with chronic pain . Taking advantage of the benefits of mindfulness are well within reach. If you are interested and want to learn more or get started today, here are a few links to popular meditation applications as well as lengthier mindfulness meditation courses.
Smartphone applications for mindfulness meditation
Headspace offers a full library of 500+ meditations on everything from stress, to resilience, to compassion. Learn to manage feelings and thoughts with the lifelong skill of everyday mindfulness, any time of the day.
Find your calm. It’s Calm’s goal to help you improve your health and happiness. Join the millions experiencing better sleep, lower stress, and less anxiety.
Waking Up is a guide to understanding the mind, for the purpose of living a more balanced and fulfilling life. Join Sam Harris – neuroscientist, philosopher, and New York Times best-selling author – as he explores the practice of meditation and the theory behind it.
World’s first personalized meditation app. By answering daily questions about your meditation experience, goals, and challenges, Balance creates personalized mediations for you. The more you share over time, the more personalized and effective your meditations become.
**This blog was written by Domenico Mercuri, a McMaster University PT student on placement virtually with Paulette Gardiner Millar, PT.**