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Can Mindfulness Help with Pain Management?

  • October 27, 2022
  • Healthy living for mental well-being, New research, Treatment

Many people suffer with chronic pain, and it is a leading cause of disability worldwide. The typical treatment has involved the use of opioids, but they have well-established drawbacks and risks, including the risk of dependence. Many alternatives are being explored and there is increasing research and evidence of the effectiveness of mindfulness interventions in reducing pain.

Mindfulness-based approaches are broadly used to improve health and well-being, including addressing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Several small studies have shown positive effects on chronic pain intensity and ability to cope and function. There is some evidence mindfulness can help reduce opioid use for chronic pain.

One common approach is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). An MBSR program is provided by trained instructors and typically consists of eight weekly group sessions covering a variety of formal and informal meditation practices (such as sitting meditation, body scan, breathing techniques, mindful walking, and mindfulness of daily activities), mindful yoga practices and techniques, group discussions, and instruction and recordings for at-home practice.

According to the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, mindfulness may improve the psychological experience of pain by:

Asian woman in yoga pose
  • Decreasing repetitive thinking and reactivity
  • Increasing a sense of acceptance for unpleasant sensations
  • Improving emotional flexibility
  • Reducing rumination and avoidant behaviors
  • Enhancing self-compassion
  • Increasing a sense of acceptance for the present moment
  • Inducing the relaxation response and decreasing stress

A 2017 review of 38 random studies found that mindfulness meditation improves pain and depression symptoms and quality of life. However, the authors noted that the evidence was low quality, and that additional large-scale, rigorous research is needed to decisively provide estimates of the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for chronic pain.

Measuring pain is challenging, and it is hard to measure a person’s level of mindfulness. The Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota notes that many of the studies looking at mindfulness and pain “focus on the ways that mindfulness can improve quality of life and psychological distress associated with pain, rather than the intensity of the sensations of pain itself.” A study recently published in the APA journal Psychiatric Services touched on this question by using neuroimaging technology to help understand which aspects of pain may be impacted by mindfulness interventions.

The study involved assessing pain in a group of study participants with both self-reporting and neuroimaging before and after an eight-week MBSR program. The study group was compared with an active control group that went through a similar training program without the mindfulness component, and a wait-list group. Both intervention groups showed significantly reduced self-reported pain after the intervention, but only the MBSR group significantly reduced pain intensity based on the neuroimaging.

Use of the technology and methods they used in the study show promise in helping to better understand the impacts of mindfulness and potentially better target the use of mindfulness training as an intervention for pain treatment, the study concludes.

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