MEDITATION FOR SKEPTICS
Has a well-meaning friend ever said “you should try meditation” to help relieve your pain? It’s understandable that you may be skeptical of this advice. Meditation is not a cure-all. However, recent scientific evidence suggests that it may help with symptoms of neuropathy.
Meditation for pain relief
Effective pain relief often requires a combination of treatments. These can include analgesics that reduce pain signals in the periphery, but there are also ways to target pain pathways in the brain. For example, two important brain areas that process pain signals are the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is involved in stress “fight or flight” responses and negative emotions. Conversely, the prefrontal cortex is involved in cognition and higher-order thinking. Together these (and other brain networks) contribute to the subjective experience of pain. Importantly, meditation affects these brain regions. Although the mechanism is unknown, studies have shown that a type of meditation, mindfulness, can decrease the volume of the amygdala (1) and increase activation of the prefrontal cortex (2). So it’s possible that meditation may dampen negative emotions and enhance cognitive control. This may be one reason why meditation is able to alter a person’s perception of pain.
Meditation and neuropathy
But does meditation help with neuropathy? It can, according to recent evidence. A group of Canadian scientists reported that patients with painful diabetic peripheral neuropathy had improved pain-related outcomes when they participated in mindfulness practices (3). Specifically, these patients experienced pain relief and better quality of life. Similarly, researchers found that not only did meditation reduce the subjective experience of pain, but it also reduced anxiety and depression in patients with neuropathy (4). This suggests that the benefits are two-fold. It can reduce symptom severity and increase overall well-being.
Meditation and mindfulness
The majority of the studies that examined pain and meditation used a mindfulness method. While it often involves formal practice, mindfulness is an aspect of meditation that can easily be incorporated into your everyday life. As you’ll see, it can simply require awareness. It is a technique that allows you to self-evaluate and obtain feedback regarding your pain on a day-to-day basis. Here are some mindfulness practices that have been applied in studies of pain:
- Body awareness: This can also be called a “body scan.” You are directed to draw your attention to various parts of your body while noticing any sensations or pain you may have. During the scan, you should try not to attend to any thoughts or fears you may have about the sensations. Rather, the point is to just be aware of the actual physical sensations.
- Breath awareness: Now, you attend to your breath and the experience of breathing. Focus on the changes in your body occurring with breathing and to work to notice when your mind wanders, then re-focus on your breath.
- Thought awareness: Draw your attention to your thoughts in the present moment. The idea is to observe, focus, and redirect your thoughts without judgment.
These are only a few examples. There are other mindfulness techniques that may also help, including moving or walking meditation, but for some of us physical limitations make it hard to do these activities. That’s why the three types included above are a good option. They don’t require a certain setting, special equipment, or even a sitting position. You don’t have to be a yogi on a mountaintop. Try mindfulness while lying in bed.
Finally, if you are interested in more comprehensive options, here are a few apps that have resources related to meditation for pain management. They are free to download, but please check because some do cost money with in-app purchases.
- UCLA Mindful Completely Free (they also have a podcast episode titled “Working Mindfully with Pain”)
- Calm 7-day free trial (here is their blog post about using meditation to manage chronic pain)
- Headspace 2-week trial (here they have a 10-min sample meditations for pain relief)
- Insight Timer 30-day free trial (here they list pain management resources)
It is understandable that when you are in chronic pain you are willing to try any number of treatment options. Among the alternative therapies, such as meditation, yoga, massage, and acupuncture, meditation is an excellent place to start. In addition to the benefits outlined above, it is also free, doesn’t require a prescription, and doesn’t require much time. Like your friend said, “Give it a try.” Integrate it with your other treatment options. Don’t let preconceptions about meditation stop you from starting a practice that could help alleviate your neuropathy pain.
- Taren, A. A., Creswell, J. D., & Gianaros, P. J. (2013). Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with smaller amygdala and caudate volumes in community adults. PloS one, 8(5), e64574.
- Doll, A., Hölzel, B. K., Bratec, S. M., Boucard, C. C., Xie, X., Wohlschläger, A. M., & Sorg, C. (2016). Mindful attention to breath regulates emotions via increased amygdala–prefrontal cortex connectivity. Neuroimage, 134, 305-313.
- Rozworska, K. A., Poulin, P. A., Carson, A., Tasca, G. A., & Nathan, H. J. (2020). Mediators and moderators of change in mindfulness-based stress reduction for painful diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 43(2), 297-307.
- Hussain, N., & Said, A. S. (2019). Mindfulness-Based Meditation Versus Progressive Relaxation Meditation: Impact on Chronic Pain in Older Female Patients With Diabetic Neuropathy. Journal of evidence-based integrative medicine, 24, 2515690X19876599.