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Need a Stronger Painkiller? Try Meditation

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Neck pain and stress-related tension are a regular struggle for many, but experts say meditation may be the key to longterm relief.

Most people have suffered from neck pain that won’t quit or some other kind of stress-related tension at some point—if not all the time. Popping a couple of over-the-counter pills can offer a quick fix, but it turns out longer-term relief might be right on your meditation cushion. A study published earlier this year in The Journal of Pain found meditation may be the answer to easing recurring or more chronic neck pain. Researchers found a majority of study participants who experienced chronic neck pain reported a significant reduction in pain and pain-related complaints after eight weeks of jyoti meditation practice. Jyoti is a traditional Indian meditation technique, involving the repetition of mantras and focus on the third eye.

How Meditation Reduces Neck Pain

“Chronic pain is frequently associated with distress, and neck pain specifically is related to high levels of stress,” says Andreas Michalsen, M.D., one of the study researchers and a professor at Charité University Berlin.

Michaelsen hypothesizes that any of a variety of meditation forms shown to relieve stress could offer similar benefits for pain relief. How might your mindfulness meditation practice, say, compare with Jyoti, used in the study? “Both types of meditation go along with effects on brain centers that modulate the neurobiological pain signals and pathways,” he says. Meditation essentially eliminates the suffering related to pain.

“We were surprised to see the large effect on pain, but no clear effect on function,” Michaelson says. “This points to the idea that the ‘suffering’ from pain, but not the cause of it, is improved through jyoti mediation in the short-term.”

Changing the Experience of Pain

“I’ve seen mindfulness meditation utilized for all kinds of physical and emotional pain,” says Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Real Happiness at Work. “For one thing, it allows one to distinguish physical pain from added mental torment, such as being immersed in thinking: ‘This will never change.’ ‘No one else suffers as I do.’ ‘I’m all alone.’ ‘This is all my fault.’”

She says mindfulness teaches you to see the downward spiral of negative thoughts and let them go. “Mindfulness also helps deconstruct the pain: Rather than seeing it as a solid block that has taken over a part of your body, you go into the pain and see moments of pressure, moments of burning, moments of iciness, etc,” she says.

How to Use Meditation for Pain Relief

Mare Chapman, a Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapist, says meditation can ease everything from life-interfering chronic pain to stress-induced muscle tension to the occasional migraine or menstrual cramp. While you may not be able to eliminate the cause, you don’t have to suffer. Chapman offers these tips for using mindfulness meditation to deal with it:

1. Notice the pain.

Mentally note where the pain is, what it feels like, how your body is reacting to it, and so on.

2. Be present.

Encourage yourself to drop into the present moment. Start by focusing on your breathing. You can do deep belly breaths or just concentrate on your inhaling and exhaling as they come. Focus on your body connecting with the floor or the surface upon which you rest.

3. Get interested.

Investigate the pain as if experiencing it for the very first time. Become interested about the pain in that moment. “The more curious you become about the actual sensations, the less you’ll worry about the ‘what ifs’ that can lead to suffering,” says Chapman.

4. Repeat regularly.

Whatever form of meditation choose, make it a regular practice. Chapman says overtime you can train your brain to respond naturally pain this way.

Kim Kirby

London, UK