Mindfulness for Pain Management

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Our relationship with physical pain is often blurry. When we have a headache, we tend to reduce the pain with ibuprofen. If our stomach feels queasy, we self-diagnose the cause and drink an over-the-counter antacid.

But it’s important to realize that sometimes a routine of self-medication can overshadow a more complex issue. Although occasional pain is inevitable, it can be a warning sign that something else is wrong.

Our bodies tell us the truth of ourselves that our minds can deny. And while we move through the most ordinary physical tasks of every day, something inside of us is always sensing change.

Most medications, although crucial for the treatment of many diseases, can’t help us reconnect with our mind and body at the same time. The struggle of pain can sometimes derive from increased stress and tension that our bodies were warning us about, but we brushed off with over-the-counter remedies.

With pain, there are a lot of processes going underway in our body. Since pain is a multidimensional experience it involves sensory, cognitive, and affective factors. This can make its treatment complex. In an interview for a story published in Advocate Aurora Health, Dr. John Hong, a pain management specialist discusses the dynamic between pain and treatment:

“Treating chronic pain is challenging because of the complex nature of pain and the unique nature of each sufferer. Therefore, a customized approach is required for best results. It is important to understand the physical, psychological, and societal contributions to chronic pain for each suffer.”

In the interview, he also explains that chronic pain can cause low energy levels, inability to sleep, and serious psychological stress. This can result in depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

When we use opioids to treat chronic pain, for example, the misuse of the substance can increase. The statistics related to the recent opioid epidemic highlight the importance of recognizing that other treatments, like mindfulness meditation, can nourish long-term health and emotional well-being.

The practice of mindfulness

Pain is a natural part of life, but suffering is only one possible response to it that we can learn to manage. Being more subtly aware of our bodies can help us navigate our pain inducers.

It can even turn on our “body memory,” a term first coined by Edward S. Casey, a professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, to understand the relationship between stress and trauma and how those experiences lodge in the body, as well as how they can be addressed.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a practice that has been proven to help reduce stress and support health, healing, and personal growth. Through MBSR courses, you can understand how to listen to your body more and identify when it's living through moments of distress and pain.

Separate from the scientific understanding of physical pain, Buddhist philosophy recognizes that suffering is caused by clinging and ignorance (Grewal, Kalra, & Kaush, 2018). This idea leaves room for the opportunity of gaining awareness about one's causes of illness and conducting our lives in a manner that leads to improvement.

For thousands of years, Buddhist monks have reasoned that mindfulness meditation can alter the subjective experience of pain. Yet, only recently have scientists proven health improvements through mindfulness meditation (Zeidan, F. & Vago, D, 2016). Among the findings, there is evidence demonstrating that mindfulness mechanisms significantly attenuate chronic pain.

The practice is also linked to improvements in anxiety, depression, stress, and cognition. It’s important to remember that in addition to the mental strain they bring about, these disorders also often cause physical symptoms such as muscle tension, body soreness, and headaches.