Mindfulness can enhance the quality of life in chronic pain sufferers, new research suggests. The findings add weight to previous studies, which found that mindfulness might have the power to reduce pain severity by half.
This new meta-analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Evidence-Based Mental Health, analyzed the evidence from 21 previous studies involving 2,000 chronic pain sufferers. It was designed to assess whether mindfulness was as effective as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for relieving chronic pain and its associated distress. CBT can be effective and has none of the side-effects of traditional painkillers, such as lethargy and addiction. But, crucially, not everyone benefits from CBT.
Most of the participants in this new analysis were women aged between 35 and 65 and suffered largely from musculoskeletal pain. In nearly 40 percent of the studies, participants had endured their pain for more than a decade.
This new analysis suggests that mindfulness is just as effective as CBT when it comes to improving physical functioning. And both mindfulness and CBT were equally good at reducing pain and its associated conditions, such as depression.
“While CBT is considered to be the preferred psychological intervention for chronic pain, not all patients experience a clinically significant treatment response," the authors write. "Although a number of recommendations have been proposed to improve CBT for patients with chronic pain, an additional solution may be to offer patients Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction since it shows promise in improving pain severity and reducing pain interference and psychological distress."
Previous work has found evidence that mindfulness meditation is highly effective at directly relieving chronic pain and also reducing the distress it causes. For example, Fadel Zeidan at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina found that mindfulness can reduce chronic pain by 57 percent.
A typical meditation involves focusing on different parts of the body and simply observing with the mind’s eye what you find. This allows you to see your mind and body in action, to observe painful sensations as they rise and fall, and to let go of struggling with them. And when you do this, something remarkable happens: Suffering begins to melt away. This practice also creates a relaxed state of mind that reduces the level of stress hormones in the body. Such deep relaxation can enhance healing and boost mental and physical health.
Imaging studies indicate that mindfulness soothes the brain patterns underlying pain and, over time, these changes take root and alter the structure of the brain itself so that patients no longer feel pain with the same intensity. Many say that they barely notice it at all.
For these reasons, hospital pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases, such as cancer (and the side effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. It is also used for back problems, migraine, fibromyalgia, coeliac disease, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and even multiple sclerosis.
You can download free meditations from Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing here.