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Can Meditating Help Your Pain?

Understanding pain can be complex.  What pain science research has revealed is that pain does not always mean there is actual tissue damage or injury.  Furthermore, intensity, duration, and quality of pain are not consistent with amount of tissue damage or injury.  What is now understood is the significant impact other common variables in our lives can actually play in our pain experience.  Stress, sleep, and our perceptions and beliefs about pain can drastically contribute to what we used to recognize as only a physical sensation.  It is because of this that the WHOLE PERSON must be considered when addressing any one injury or pain episode.

So, the next question is what else can be done to manage pain that doesn’t involve the latest fads, medications, and more relinquishment of personal control in the matter (in other words, being dependent on someone or some thing to feel better)?  Perhaps the most obvious answer would be to implement some kind of intervention or practice that can help manage these secondary contributors to our pain (secondary contributors being stress, sleep, and our perceptions and beliefs).

Mindfulness meditation has been proven to be able to do just that.  Meditation has a variety of forms and objectives, but most simply, it is done by quieting the noise of our minds, often through finding a singular focus, such as one’s breathing pattern, and bringing attention to the present moment.  Mindfulness meditation is simply about non-judgmental awareness and presence.  I won’t attempt to describe it any further as there are thousands of books and videos out there to coach someone who is attempting to learn.   Meditation is widely regarded as an inexpensive and direct way of managing the stress of life when implemented as a consistent practice.

A double-blind, randomized study by Zeidan F, et al, published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2016 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26985045) discusses in great detail how mindfulness meditation has been demonstrated to have a positive effect on pain management.  The study further describes how this effect is NOT actually achieved by previously proposed mechanisms involving endogenous opiods (chemicals naturally produced within the body to address pain).  Apparently, these opiodergic mechanisms have been shown to be involved in cognitive inhibition of pain.  Other methods of pain relief through placebo, conditioned pain modulation, and attentional control have been reversed by administration of an opioid antagonist called naloxone.  This study demonstrates that high-dose naloxone failed to reverse mindfulness-meditation induced pain relief.  The author concluded that this indicates that mindfulness meditation instead works through a complex combination of different brain centers being activated that serve as a “gating mechanism through executive shifts in attention and nonjudgmental reappraisal of noxious sensations.”  This stuff is pretty complex, but the underlying conclusion is that meditation can assist with managing pain!  Pretty cool stuff!

What this study illustrates, beyond its specific intent and the degree of complexity in our nervous systems, is that we likely already have tools to combat our pain that many of us are not using.  The body is an amazing system that works to heal and repair us without our knowledge.  Many times, we just need to clear the way for it to do so, and according to this study, meditation can help do just that!

The physical therapists at Omaha Physical Therapy Institute are dedicated to continuing their education and keeping up with the most current pain neuroscience in order to provide patients with the most cutting edge and science backed care.   Call today to schedule your appointment!

Matt Vetter, PT, DPT, CSCS

Reference:  Zeidan F, Adler-Neal AL, Wells RE, et al. Mindfulness-meditation-based pain relief is not mediated by endogenous opioids. Journal of Neuroscience. 2016;36(11):3391-3397.

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