Can Meditation Help Me With My Chronic Pain? Past Ten Years of Research Say “Yes”

July 11th, 2014 by

Chronic pain affects 30 to 40 million U.S. adults, costing an estimated $600 billion a year.  But researchers have learned more about the physiology of pain in the past ten years than in the previous thousand. Pain is created by the brain in response to what it thinks is a threat. Contrary to previous thought, there isn’t just one pain center in the brain, there are many, according to Pain Explained, a publication of the Neuro Orthopedic Institute (NOI) of South Australia. “These parts include clusters of nodes used for sensation, movement, emotions, and memory, and they all link up to each other electrically and chemically.” In chronic pain, some of these nodes are hijacked or enslaved by the pain experience. While this is a complex process, one primary feature of chronic pain is hypersensitivity in the body’s alarm system of sensory neurons whose function is to send “danger” messages to the brain, particularly in the presence of inflammation.

Injured body tissue has a fairly specific window of time for healing. However, pain can persist even when the injury has had time to heal. This typically happens because the body’s natural alarm system becomes hyper-vigilant and abnormally sensitive, sending exaggerated “danger” signals. The brain’s faulty interpretation of these signals becomes deeply ingrained and persistent. “This can mean just touching the skin, or a slight temperature change, might cause the body’s sensors to send danger messages to the brain.” The brain incorrectly concludes that a threat remains, and that you need all the protection you can get. It produces pain, which is the body/mind’s normal way of motivating you to “get away” or escape from the “danger”. According to the NOI, brain responses such as movements, thoughts, autonomic and endocrine responses are then based on faulty information about the health of the tissues at the end of the nerve cells. “It’s as though an amplifier on a sound system is turned up.”

Thought Viruses Maintain the Chronic Pain Cycle

Thoughts and beliefs are nerve impulses too, and part of the chronic pain loop. As the NOI explains, “the brain has learned to be very good at protecting you from anything that might be dangerous to your tissues. Anxious and worrisome thoughts are threatening to a brain that is already hyper-vigilant about your survival. Research has identified thought processes – “thought viruses” – powerful enough to maintain a pain state. Some powerful thought viruses include:

I’m in pain so there must be something harmful happening to my body,”

“I’m staying home and not going out until all the pain goes away,” and

“I’m so frightened of my pain and of injuring my back again that I’m not doing anything!”

Meditation Helps Chronic Pain Sufferers Diminish “Thought Viruses”

People who practice mindfulness meditation find pain less unpleasant because their brains anticipate the pain less, according to a 2010 study. Scientists from the University of Manchester discovered that regular meditators show unusual activity during anticipation of pain in part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, a region involved in controlling attention and thought processes when potential threats are perceived. “Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse,” said the lead researcher. The value of meditation is that it soothes the hypersensitive threat/alarm/danger system at play in chronic pain.

Depressive Thoughts Make Pain Worse

In new study at the University of Oxford, researchers induced a depressed mood in study participants and found this disrupted the neural circuitry that regulates emotion, causing an enhanced experience of pain. Researchers believe that a sad mental state disables our ability to regulate the negative emotion associated with pain. Thus, pain has a greater impact. “Rather than merely being a consequence of having pain, depressed mood may drive pain and cause it to feel worse.” Mindfulness meditation is beneficial in preventing the relapse of depression by strengthening the practitioner’s ability to recognize the physical, cognitive, and emotional effects of depressive thoughts, and to proactively “decenter” from those thoughts.

Communication in the Brain Affects Pain

A 2012 Northwestern University study is the first to show that chronic pain develops the more two sections of the brain – related to emotional and motivational behavior – talk to each other. The more the frontal cortex and nucleus accumbens communicate, the greater the chance a patient will develop chronic pain. “The nucleus accumbens is an important center for teaching the rest of the brain how to evaluate and react  . . . . and may use the pain signal to teach the rest of the brain to develop chronic pain,” said the study’s senior author.

With this knowledge of how and why chronic pain develops, and with training in mindfulness meditation, you have tools for influencing patterns of thought and emotion that may be driving your pain. Mindfulness meditation is a complementary practice which can enhance standard medical treatment by your healthcare provider. You can proactively change the vicious cycle of chronic pain.

Training a More Laid-Back Brain

September 22nd, 2012 by

One of the hottest forms of stress reduction today is actually one of the oldest: meditation. But the kind making the rounds of hospitals, community centers, and even schools in increasing numbers doesn’t involve chanting “Om” while sitting on a cushion with closed eyes; instead, participants are trained to pay attention to their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and to view them neutrally, “without assigning an emotional value that they are strongly positive or negative,” says University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Read more of this article by Meryl Davids Landau for U. S. News & World Report.

Can Meditation Help Me With My Chronic Pain?

July 15th, 2012 by

Past Ten Years of Research Say “Yes”

Chronic pain affects 30 to 40 million U.S. adults, costing an estimated $600 billion a year. But researchers have learned more about the physiology of pain in the past ten years than in the previous thousand. Pain is created by the brain in response to what it thinks is a threat. Contrary to previous thought, there isn’t just one pain center in the brain, there are many, according to Pain Explained, a publication of the Neuro Orthopedic Institute (NOI) of South Australia. “These parts include clusters of nodes used for sensation, movement, emotions, and memory, and they all link up to each other electrically and chemically.” In chronic pain, some of these nodes are hijacked or enslaved by the pain experience. While this is a complex process, one primary feature of chronic pain is hypersensitivity in the body’s alarm system of sensory neurons whose function is to send “danger” messages to the brain, particularly in the presence of inflammation.

Injured body tissue has a fairly specific window of time for healing. However, pain can persist even when the injury has had time to heal. This typically happens because the body’s natural alarm system becomes hyper-vigilant and abnormally sensitive, sending exaggerated “danger” signals. The brain’s faulty interpretation of these signals becomes deeply ingrained and persistent. “This can mean just touching the skin, or a slight temperature change, might cause the body’s sensors to send danger messages to the brain.” The brain incorrectly concludes that a threat remains, and that you need all the protection you can get. It produces pain, which is the body/mind’s normal way of motivating you to “get away” or escape from the “danger”. According to the NOI, brain responses such as movements, thoughts, autonomic and endocrine responses are then based on faulty information about the health of the tissues at the end of the nerve cells. “It’s as though an amplifier on a sound system is turned up.”

Thought Viruses Maintain the Chronic Pain Cycle

Thoughts and beliefs are nerve impulses too, and part of the chronic pain loop. As the NOI explains, “the brain has learned to be very good at protecting you from anything that might be dangerous to your tissues. “Anxious and worrisome thoughts are threatening to a brain that is already hyper-vigilant about your survival.” Research has identified thought processes – “thought viruses” – powerful enough to maintain a pain state. Some powerful thought viruses include:

I’m in pain so there must be something harmful happening to my body,”

“I’m staying home and not going out until all the pain goes away,” and

“I’m so frightened of my pain and of injuring my back again that I’m not doing anything!”

Meditation Helps Chronic Pain Sufferers Diminish “Thought Viruses”

People who practice mindfulness meditation find pain less unpleasant because their brains anticipate the pain less, according to a 2010 study. Scientists from the University of Manchester discovered that regular meditators show unusual activity during anticipation of pain in part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, a region involved in controlling attention and thought processes when potential threats are perceived. “Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse,” said the lead researcher. The value of meditation is that it soothes the hypersensitive threat/alarm/danger system at play in chronic pain.

Depressive Thoughts Make Pain Worse

In new study at the University of Oxford, researchers induced a depressed mood in study participants and found this disrupted the neural circuitry that regulates emotion, causing an enhanced experience of pain. Researchers believe that a sad mental state disables our ability to regulate the negative emotion associated with pain. Thus, pain has a greater impact. “Rather than merely being a consequence of having pain, depressed mood may drive pain and cause it to feel worse.” Mindfulness meditation is beneficial in preventing the relapse of depression by strengthening the practitioner’s ability to recognize the physical, cognitive, and emotional effects of depressive thoughts, and to proactively “decenter” from those thoughts.

Communication in the Brain Affects Pain

A 2012 Northwestern University study is the first to show that chronic pain develops the more two sections of the brain – related to emotional and motivational behavior – talk to each other. The more the frontal cortex and nucleus accumbens communicate, the greater the chance a patient will develop chronic pain. “The nucleus accumbens is an important center for teaching the rest of the brain how to evaluate and react  . . . . and may use the pain signal to teach the rest of the brain to develop chronic pain,” said the study’s senior author.

With this knowledge of how and why chronic pain develops, and with training in mindfulness meditation, you have tools for influencing patterns of thought and emotion that may be driving your pain. Mindfulness meditation is a complementary practice which can enhance standard medical treatment by your healthcare provider. You can proactively change the vicious cycle of chronic pain.

References:

Explain Pain, Neuro Orthopaedic Institue, Noigroup Publications, South Australia 2003, 2010. www.noigroup.com

University of Manchester (2010, June 2). Meditation reduces the emotional impact of pain, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/06/100602091315.htm

Elsevier (2010, June 7). Why does feeling low hurt? Depressed mood increases the perception of pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/06/100607111318.htm as reported in Science Daily (June 7, 2012

Northwestern University (2012, July 1). Why chronic pain is all in your head: Early brain changes predict which patients develop chronic pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 2, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com

American Gastroenterological Association (2011, September 19). Negative emotions influence brain activity during anticipation and experience of pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2011/09/110919113842.htm

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Get Your ZZZ’s Naturally: Mindfulness training & therapeutic yoga are optimal treatments for insomnia

April 15th, 2012 by

I remember when chronic pain and obsessive worry kept me awake night after night. Typically, around 2 am, my mind was scanning the horizon like a lighthouse, searching for something to worry about. When it locked on it wouldn’t let go, mentally approaching the “problem” from every conceivable angle – until the alarm clock went off. Does this sound like you?  Are you exhausted day after day due to the inability to sleep? What would life be like if a good nights sleep was something you could count on? How about a life with more energy, better moods, improved concentration, and enhanced health? Sound good?

Restful sleep is a foundation of good physical and emotional health.  But many people lie awake nightly, or have difficulty returning to sleep once awakened.  Sleep medications can produce unwanted side effects, including dependency. Medications can also lose effectiveness over time. Are there natural alternatives that are actually good for you, without side effects, the effectiveness of which increase over time? There are!

Medical researchers are looking closely at mindfulness training and therapeutic yoga due to the substantial benefits they offer for insomnia as well as a host of other health, quality of life, and productivity concerns. Stress is a major cause of insomnia, but pain, anxiety, and depression – all magnified by stress – are also associated with sleeplessness. Researchers are studying why mindfulness training and therapeutic yoga offer such valuable relief for insomnia.

Jeff Greeson, PhD, MS, clinical health psychologist at Duke University explains, “When we don’t know what to do with intrusive and persistent thoughts, the mind and body feel threatened. That signals the ‘fight or flight’ response which starts a cascade of sleep-robbing emotions like agitation and anxiety.” Greeson’s study of 151 sleep deprived adults, mostly women, who received 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training in mindfulness techniques and gentle yoga, showed significant improvements in sleep quality, sleep disturbances, and less daytime sleepiness. “When people become more mindful they learn to look at life through a new lens. They learn how to accept the presence of thoughts and feelings that may keep them up at night. They begin to understand that they don’t have to react to them. As a result, they experience greater emotional balance and less sleep disturbance.”

Stress is so pervasive today. People worry about the economy, their jobs, bills. “All that worrying, obsessing, and ruminating can increase the risk of illness and disease,” explains Greeson. “When the mind worries, the body responds.” The key, he says, is not to push those thoughts away, but to acknowledge them “That helps people manage their reaction to stress and anxiety and helps them remain calm.”

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego compared mindfulness training with sleep medication in two groups. One received the 8-week MBSR program. The other was prescribed the sleep medication Lunesta™. The MBSR participants significantly reduced the time it took them to fall asleep, increased their total sleep time, reported no adverse events, and scored their satisfaction with treatment as high. Although the patients who received sleep medication obtained similar benefits, their treatment satisfaction scores were not high, most continued using sleeping pills, and several reported adverse events. Because MBSR produces no side effects, and the positive potential benefits of mindfulness extend far beyond sleep, the researchers encouraged people with insomnia, especially those unable or unwilling to use sleep medications, to consider mindfulness training with MBSR.

This year a study by Duke University and Aetna compared mindfulness training with therapeutic yoga and found both to significantly improve sleep, stress, pain, and blood pressure. Researchers said mindfulness training reduces stress by teaching people how to significantly shift their attention to the present moment, with a curious and non-judgmental perspective. Viniyoga, the therapeutic form of yoga examined in this study, utilizes tools for managing stress, including “asanas” (physical postures of yoga), adaptation of asanas to suit the individual’s body, breathing techniques, guided relaxation, mental techniques, and education about starting a home practice.

Mindfulness and therapeutic Viniyoga have dramatically improved the quality of my sleep, as well as virtually every aspect of my life. I would love to speak with you about incorporating these wonderful practices into your life!

References

Mindfulness Training Improves Sleep Quality; Lessens Need for Sleep Medicines. Duke Medicine News and Communications. June 25, 2009.

Gross CR, et. al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction v. Pharmacotherapy for Primary Chronic Insomnia: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 7(2): 76-87, 2011.

Wolever, RQ, et. al. Effective and Viable Mind-Body Stress Reduction in the Workplace: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. February 20, 2012.

How to Work with Sadness

March 28th, 2012 by

Sadness, grief, despair, and fear are probably some of the most difficult emotions to work with in meditation practice. We avoid feeling them, which can cause them to be entrenched – forever trying to work themselves out through repetitive behavior patterns in our life, or expressing themselves through bodily symptoms. Not good.  I found a very thorough and, I believe, wise method for learning from, and transmuting, these difficult emotions in this article by author and psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan. I realized that the process she describes parallels my own path of working with sadness. Please let me know your thoughts. Are you dealing with strong emotions?

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