Is It Really Possible That Mindfulness Meditation Can Relieve Chronic Pain?

Let me start by summarizing what research tells us about acute and chronic pain and it’s treatment.

A couple of years ago I attended a lecture given by Dr. Dan Clauw, of the University of Michigan. I was intrigued by the title of his lecture, Pain; Is It All In Your Head? We all know how angry it makes us when somebody, not knowing what else to say to our complaints, says “Have you considered, this might be all in your head”.

Is this what Dr. Clauw was suggesting? I suspected the title was meant as irony, to peak our interest.

I was right, but not in the way I expected. Dr. Clauw pointed out that, in one sense, pain is indeed in our head. There’s a part of our brain that senses injury in remote parts of our body and alerts us to do something about it. Nothing quite gets our attention the way pain does. Pain is really good at taking care of us so we avoid doing more damage to ourselves.

When something happens that hurts us, like inadvertently touching a hot burner on the stove, we might feel a lot of pain, but, when we put some salve on it, it subsides, and we learn to be more careful.

The pain, in this case, is acute pain. We treat it; it’s usually OK in a day or two. If you break a bone, it will take longer, but it usually heals so it’s no longer a problem.

What’s more troublesome is chronic pain. The pain that may come with arthritis, cancer, fibromyalgia or knee or hip replacement and other chronic conditions, just doesn’t go away, and, for some of us, it can make life pretty miserable. Witness the commercials on TV for pain drugs that can alleviate your pain. Many sufferers praised the soothing effects of Vioxx before it was taken off the market.

Practically any pain medication can have serious side effects, even, in some cases, can also cause death. Even Tylenol, perhaps the mildest of them all, has to be used carefully to avoid overdosing.

The pain center in our brain also regulates the volume of our sensation of pain. Have you ever noticed how sensitive some people are to pain, while others seem to be able to endure a lot more pain and the cause of the pain might be the same for either person?

The brain is like a thermostat. Dr, Clauw told us how, for some people, the thermostat is turned really high and, for others, it’s turned way down. Somebody suffering from fibromyalgia might wince if you just touch them very lightly, while somebody else might have serious deterioration of their spine and be hardly aware of it.

I’m a good example of the latter condition. I was diagnosed, several years ago, with spinal stenosis. Up to this point I’m happy to say, I haven’t experienced any discomfort from this. One man I spoke with in the doctor’s office told me he had spinal stenosis and it bothered him a lot,so much, he had trouble getting a decent night’s sleep.

What I liked, especially, was when Dr. Clauw talked about ways we can adjust the thermostat in our pain center, so we can have more control and less suffering.

He strongly advocates exercise and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). He didn’t come right out and suggest using medical marijuana, but he might be more open about it today. He also recommended Mindfulness Meditation.The medical community is not so willing to acknowledge the use of Mindfulness in the treatment of chronic disease and for alleviating pain, but that is changing.