Meditation is a way to practice being present. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of meditation and medicine, meditation is a practice of cultivating mindfulness, which means “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
For this post, I wanted to look at some recent research on mindfulness meditation programs involving participants with chronic pain. The purpose of these studies was to assess whether mindfulness can lower pain, reduce depression, and improve quality of life.
The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach mindfulness meditation to patients had demonstrated remarkable benefits for reducing chronic pain as well as anxiety and depression. I personally have found that this approach has helped me to reduce my anxiety, improve my quality of life, and manage my pain. The MBSR intervention is structured so that participants attend weekly sessions where they learn “different types of formal mindfulness practice, mindful awareness during yoga postures, and mindfulness during stressful situations and social interactions” (p. 227, Grossman et al., 2007).
Researchers investigated the effect of MBSR programs for participants with mixed chronic pain conditions and the significance of at-home practice for pain management. The study measured results in terms of bodily pain, quality of life and psychological symptoms for each chronic pain condition (neck/back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic headache, and two or more coexisting conditions). The researchers discovered that the degree of benefit of participating in mindfulness programs varied depending on the chronic pain condition, but that overall improvements were seen in almost every category (Rosenzweig et al., 2010).
Rosenzweig (2010) suggests different possible causes for how meditation practice can improve chronic pain conditions:
- First of all, nervous system pathways to parts of the brain associated with stress can be inhibited through mindfulness practice.
- Secondly, reducing psychological symptoms like anxiety and depression can help because those symptoms can amplify the perception of pain.
- Third, mindfulness practice can help improve emotional regulation and coping skills in stressful situations.
- Fourth, mindfulness contributes physical self-awareness which could help lead to better self-care.
- Finally, mindfulness can help activate nervous system function associated with rest and calm (parasympathetic nervous system), which in turn can lead to deep muscle relaxation that may reduce pain.
Similar results were found in a study of the effects of participating in an MBSR course for people with fibromyalgia (Grossman, et al., 2007). Significantly, the researchers interviewed about half of the original participants from the mindfulness training group 3 years later, and found sustained long-term benefits among those who continued their mindfulness practice (Grossman et al., 2007).
One research review compared 38 studies involving a total of 3500 participants. It examined previously published studies which investigated the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation as a treatment for chronic pain. They found that “mindfulness meditation was associated with a statistically significant improvement in depression, physical health-related quality of life, and mental health-related quality of life” (Hilton et al., 2017). In this review, participants showed promising outcomes on pain symptoms, but the degree of improvement was limited.
Research reviews like this are limited in their ability to compare and contrast different studies. Different meditation techniques were used in the different studies, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. In addition, the studies investigated outcomes in patients with different conditions, like fibromyalgia and migraine – which is like comparing apples to oranges. This highlights the need for more high-quality studies that include a greater number of participants with the same condition, using the same type of meditation program.
When it comes to trying mindfulness meditation, for people with chronic pain, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. Prescriptions rarely offer total relief, and come with unpleasant side effects. The only cost to meditation is a little bit of time. while the potential benefits are less pain, better mood, and a greater quality of life.
Paul Grossman, Ulrike Gilmer, Annette Raysz and Ulrike Kesper. 2007. Mindfulness Training as an Intervention for Fibromyalgia: Evidence of Postintervention and 3-Year Follow-up Benefits in Well-being. Psychology and Psychosomatics 76: 226-233.
Steven Rosenzweig, Jeffrey Greeson, Diane Reibel, Joshua Green, Samar Jasser and Denise Beasley. 2010. MIndfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: Variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 68: 29-36.
Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B. A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., Maglione, M. A. (2017). Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 51(2), 199–213. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2