I have been practising and teaching yoga and meditation for many years and my own experience of living with chronic pain is that meditation can definitely help, however it is not a state that lasts without regular practice.
Meditation seems to affect our subjective experience of pain in significant ways. Both inexperienced and experienced meditators report reduction in intensity of pain and in the feelings of unpleasantness around the experience.
In meditation, we are taught to sit and be comfortable, direct our attention to something simple and repetitive, such as the breath or a mantra and then observe sensory experiences without judging them as good or bad, or labelling them as pain or pleasure. There are several elements to how this works:
- Focused attention on the breath slows down heart rate and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a more relaxed, calm feeling in mind and body.
- The mental focus on the meditation support, such as breath or mantra, interrupts the flow of stressful, anxious thoughts, which in turn releases tension in the body. Chronic pain is often caused by an accumulation of tension in the body over many years. Soothing the thoughts that create the tension, together with relaxing the body and nervous system, will naturally relieve the pain.
- As we learn to direct our mind to a single point, it becomes easier for us to direct it to other things, such as our sensory experiences. In meditation for pain relief, for example, we would observe the sensation in our body, becoming aware of the qualities of the sensation, without judging the sensation as negative or labelling it as pain. This ability alone can significantly reduce the intensity of pain and the feeling of unpleasantness.
- As we continue the practice of mindful awareness, we realise that all experiences are created by what we think of them in our minds, that they are temporary, they come and go, and vary in intensity. This gives us a sense of empowerment because it means we have the power to detach our selves from the sensation, and to have control over how we perceive it.
A 2016 study investigated some of the mechanisms by which meditation brings about pain relief. The study states that mindfulness meditation has been shown to bring about pain relief across a wide range of chronic pain disorders. The authors suggest that meditation engages several different parts of the brain that are involved with our subjective experience of pain. They found significant improvement in the perception of pain, even after only brief training (<1 week) in mindfulness meditation. Participants showed a reduction in both pain intensity and unpleasantness.
Longer-term meditators experienced very similar reductions in levels of pain intensity to short-term meditators. However there were more significant effects in perceptions of unpleasantness. This possibly resulted from the increased abilty, that comes with longer practice, of being able to observe a sensation without judging it or labelling it as pain.
As many great teachers of meditation have pointed out, meditation is simple, but not easy. It does take practice and perseverance, plus a willingness to adopt a different mindset, for someone to experience the benefits of meditation, of which pain relief is just one.
Zeidan, Fadel, and David Vago. “Mindfulness Meditation–based Pain Relief: A Mechanistic Account.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1373, no. 1 (June 2016): 114–27. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13153.