Meditation cultivates an "awareness that develops when you're paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment," says Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, former executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in Worcester, Mass. The idea is if you can calm and focus your mind and your body you may be able to control your pain and the degree to which you feel it.
It's important to face your pain and the muscle tension, sweating, and irritability that goes along with it, explains Robert Bonakdar, MD, director of pain management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego. The idea is to relax your body and to become aware of your pain without judging it or fixating on it. "Pain patients want to run away from it, but mindfulness allows patients to go back into this dark hole, coming to terms with the pain, and addressing and controlling it," explains Dr. Bonakdar.
Taking the focus away from pain
"You cannot experience pain unless you focus on it," says Gabriel Tan, PhD, a pain psychologist at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Houston. "Let's say you're focusing on your pain and then the next moment a person comes into the room with a gun and threatens to kill you; you won't feel pain because you'll be focusing on the man with the gun. Meditation helps you shift your focus in somewhat the same way," explains Tan.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is one way of teaching meditation for chronic pain. "The first thing we do is get you lying down on the floor, because for patients in pain sitting can make things worse," explains Kabat-Zinn. "For the next 45 minutes, people do what's called a body scan focusing on their breathing and how their body feels in the present moment from the bottom of the foot up the leg, through the trunk, and up to the head," says Kabat-Zinn. A 2007 study at the University of Basel Hospital, in Switzerland, found that mindfulness-based stress reduction helped fibromyalgia patients in several ways, including coping with pain, anxiety, and depression. A three-year follow-up found that patients who continued to use some form of mindfulness meditation kept seeing the benefits.