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Mindfulness for Relief of Chronic Pain

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

When it comes to chronic pain, the key is learning to live with it rather than vainly trying to avoid or eradicate it, Christiane Wolf, M.D, April 2015 issue of Mindful magazine.

In our daily lives, we all experience pain as fleeting as a stubbed toe or as unremitting as a toothache. Unfortunately, many conditions and diseases result in pain that can be described as "chronic"—that is, pain that never stops. Although family and social support are crucial in dealing with pain, your chronic pain can have a huge impact on your emotions, your family, and your quality of life in general. 

There is currently much evidence that mindfulness practice of MBSR heals, and leading health professionals are taking this practice right into the health care system from "prevention, diagnoses and treatment, through cure and palliative care" (Barry Boyce).

What is pain? 

Have you ever wondered where pain starts and how we perceive painful sensations? All pain begins with injury or disease, and is a signal that something has gone wrong. The injury itself results in inflammation that causes nerves to respond along pathways to the specific areas of the brain, where it triggers the perception of pain.

A "descending inhibitory pathway" of opiate receptors however, which also starts in the brain, can stop the perception of pain. Opiate receptors are opiate-­like molecules made and used in the brain. In fact, opiate drugs work by mimicking natural internal opiates that modify the perception of pain.

Linda Turner does a wonderful job in her podcast of explaining how the descending inhibitory pathway works, and goes on to demonstrate, with a guided "body scan," how MBSR and mindfulness training directly affect the way the brain processes pain.

Chronic pain and emotion

Chronic pain, whatever the cause or type—dull or sharp, throbbing or aching, intermittent or constant ­­ can be debilitating and exhausting. And the daily quest to get away from the pain can result in intense anxiety and stress. Sufferers also describe feelings of panic, or of being "trapped" in the pain. 

People with pain often go into a cycle of rumination, imagining worst-case scenarios about what might happen and adding to their feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and sometimes resentment and hostility. Questions such as "Why me?" or "What’s going to happen?" are often constant in their minds. Dan Siegel describes these thoughts as "black holes" that ultimately suck the energy out of life.

Mindfulness practice helps centre and ground the individual and teaches them to ask and answer the question, "What am I feeling now?" Being aware of the present moment breaks the cycle of rumination and the worst-case scenario stories.

MBSR proven to relieve chronic pain is only awareness itself that can balance out all of our various inflammations of thought and the emotional agitations and distortions that accompany the frequent storms that blow through the mind, especially in the face of a chronic pain condition. Jon Kabat­-Zinn in The Mindfulness Solution to Pain

As I've mentioned in other posts, it has been 30 years since Dr. Kabat­-Zinn started the Centre for Mindfulness, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Since then, there have been literally hundreds of studies on how mindfulness practice and MBSR reduce the perception of pain.

In MBSR programs, chronic pain patients learn that there is more that is right with them than wrong, regardless of what the medical diagnosis is. We focus on what is right and infuse a lot of energy into their "pain-free" self and into activating the brain’s descending inhibitory pathway. This is where mindfulness practice works. It shifts the locus of control from the outside: "This is happening to me and there is nothing I can do about it"—to the inside: "This is happening to me but I can choose how I relate to it."

That is the premise behind MBSR programs and mindfulness, which also provide a more accurate perception of the pain and its depth and duration. Mindfulness teaches you to observe your pain, and be curious about it. And it’s the very act of paying attention that helps to ease the pain.

Where to find help

If you or anyone you know in Vancouver or the Lower Mainland of BC suffers with chronic pain, there is help nearby at Mindful Changes. Contact us if you have questions or would like to learn more about MBSR training, or mindfulness classes and workshops.


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