The Science of Meditation For Pain Relief

meditation for chronic pain
Mayv Editors
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Mayv Editors

The practice of meditation has a long history, with roots extending to Hinduism and Buddhism. However, meditation is not a religious practice. It’s simply a practice used to train the brain. Just like lifting weights or running makes you physically stronger, meditation for chronic pain enhances your brains’ cognitive abilities.

Meditation can be thought of as an umbrella term that encompasses many practices. Various methods include loving-kindness, mantra, transcendental, and mindfulness— the most common and most-studied form. 

On a basic level, mindfulness requires the sitter to become fully aware of their experience in the present moment. Meditators achieve this awareness by focusing on their breath, emotions, physical sensations, sights, or noises. There is no end to what a mindfulness meditator can focus on, but starting out, most individuals find the breath as the easiest object to concentrate on.

The practice of mindfulness can be compared to learning any new skill, such as a foreign language. It takes time, practice, and commitment to improve your awareness. Meditation is most impactful when it becomes a daily habit. In other words, the more you practice, the more you’ll learn and benefit in everyday life.

While meditating, you might notice their mind beginning to wander. When this happens, simply redirect your focus back to the object of concentration, such as your breath. This practice enhances the your concentration and awareness of what’s occurring, it teaches you to control your focus. 

Once you become advanced at mediation, you’ll notice a heightened ability to step back and evaluate your experiences and resultant sensations. This leads to a detachment from negative emotions, giving you the ability to react with a clear mind, not an emotion-driven mind. 

The Benefits of Meditation For Chronic Pain

Meditation can enhance many aspects of your overall health and wellness. For decades, researches have been exploring the positive benefits associated with regular meditation practice and the results are pretty remarkable.  

A brief look at the potential benefits of meditation can be seen here:

  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Decrease anxiety, depression, stress, anger, and fatigue 
  • Enhance levels of concentration and awareness
  • Improve sleep quality while reducing insomnia-like symptoms
  • Fight addictions such as smoking
  • Increase overall mood
  • Reduce inflammation and assist in regulating the immune system
  • Increase spirituality 
  • Improve mental health and perceived quality of life 

Researchers from John Hopkins have performed review studies and found that meditation may be just as effective, but no greater, at treating mental illnesses than drug therapy. While not more effective, patients may find mediation practice to be more attractive, due to the lack of any negative side effects. 

Further research needs to be done to determine how efficient meditation is at combating disorders. 

The Science Behind Meditation’s Benefits

Meditatiosn is widely believed to be beneficial, but many people, including avid mediators, aren’t fully aware of what the practice does on a physiological level.

A study in 2005, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, found that meditation creates structural changes in the brain. The researchers witnessed an increase in the thickness of brain regions associated with visual, auditory, somatosensory (feeling warmth, pressure, etc.), and interoceptive processing (awareness sensations within the body). 

As we age, we experience cortical thinning, which may be related to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The use of meditation may be able to fight cortical thinning in aging adults. Although meditation will only balance out the natural thinning process, this still may be effective in helping to fight the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Additionally, researchers at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam found that adolescents and adults with cortical thinning have an increased risk of developing a major depressive disorder (MDD). Since mediation can increase cortical thickness, adolescents and young adults who meditate could significantly reduce the chance of developing MDD. 

Further research has shown that meditators have changed the geometry of the folds in their brains. Frequent meditators have increased folds and altered fold patterns in their brain. This change may be related to the fact that meditators have more integrated brain function compared to someone who does not meditate. Further studies need to be conducted to understand the complete impacts of these structural changes.

In 2011, a novel study compared regions in the brain, known collectively as the default mode network (DMN), in individuals with meditation experience and those without it. The results showed that those who meditate have a less active DMN compared to non-mediators. The importance of which cannot be understood without knowing the science behind the DMN. 

The DMN is composed of various parts of the brain that simultaneously activate while the brain is at rest. This rest period is defined by the perception of mind-wandering. This resting state is further categorized by thoughts that revolve around self-related topics. Individuals ruminate about past and future events which may cause unhappiness, anxiety, and stress. 

Upon conclusion from a systematic review, researchers noted a correlation between mental health disorders and heightened DMN activity. Greater activity of DMN, and greater mind-wandering, leads to an increased likelihood to develop mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia.

The NIH funded a study in 2016 where researchers found that long-term meditators have reduced DMN activity while meditating and while performing unrelated tasks. This novel study shows how the impact of meditation extends beyond the practice. The activity of a mediator’s brain changes over time and goes beyond just the meditation practice. Throughout the day, their brains function differently than the brains of people who do not meditate. 

The lower levels of activity in the DMN of mediators pose many benefits. Meditators may experience a greater overall quality of life, increased mental health, and reduced likelihood to develop a mental health disorder.

Final Thoughts on Meditation For Chronic Pain

Meditation has been proven to change the structure of brain folds and increase cortical thickness, thereby strengthening mental processes. Long-term meditators can also fundamentally change the way their brain functions. They have decreased activity in various regions of their brain leading to a lower likelihood of developing depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental disorders. 

As of late, meditation has been widely studied for good reason. With all the benefits discovered, researchers should continue studying the effects. Maybe someday meditation for chronic pain will be a common therapy technique.  

Hopefully these benefits have peaked your interest if you don’t currently practice. Remember, it’s never too late to start meditating!

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