Use Your Brain to Relieve Pain

Use Your Brain to Relieve Pain

If you're among the tens of millions of North Americans living with chronic pain, we've got news about a drug-free "om remedy" worth trying: easy meditation. Plenty of research shows that your brain's superpowers can help conquer the most stubborn of miseries, including bad backs, cancer pain, arthritis, tension headaches, and inflammatory bowel disease. (Check out how meditation can help knee pain.) The best part? You don't have to move to a mountaintop, sit on a rock-hard meditation cushion, or shell out big bucks for a meditation instructor to get results.

In a study from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, people who meditated for just 20 minutes a day saw their pain tolerance rise in 4 days. Volunteers learned an ultra-easy technique called mindfulness meditation that teaches you to focus on your breath and stay in the present moment, not worry about what's ahead. Researchers tested the volunteers' pain thresholds with mild electric shocks and found that shocks considered "high pain" before meditating felt mild afterward. Volunteers who didn't learn the meditation had unchanged responses to the shocks. (No, we can't imagine why anyone volunteered for this, though we're grateful that they did.)

Please don't try this at home! But once you've finished reading this column, take a few minutes to test-drive our simple instructions (see below) for mindfulness meditation and two other pain-soothing techniques. You'll feel calm, centered, and Zen-fully refreshed, fast.

But first, let's get something straight: Meditation doesn't work because your pain is "all in your head." Chronic pain is all too real, and too many people live with it every day. When pain won't quit, stress and worry kick in, boosting levels of stress hormones, which tricks your brain into thinking the pain is worse than it is. De-stressing with meditation or similar mind-body techniques (progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery) dials back stress hormones, which so diminishes pain. The difference may be enough for you to reduce your pain meds or to get relief when drugs alone fall short.

There's more. In other research, this time from England's University of Manchester, meditation eased pain by helping your brain stop anticipating it -- another stress trigger. Less stress and less pain can also mean better sleep, more motivation to exercise, and even less depression, all of which make you relax more and hurt less.

Ready to get started? Find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down comfortably for 10 to 15 minutes. Tape a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door. Then, give these brain-powered pain busters a whirl:

  • Mindfulness meditation: Close your eyes; it will help you stay focused. Breathe in and out, slowly and naturally (no need to hyperventilate), paying attention to how each inhale and exhale feels. Acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in your body, but don't get wrapped up in them. Keep gently returning your focus to your rhythmic breathing. After 10 minutes or so, begin to notice your surroundings as you breathe calmly. Then, plan to go about your day with this feeling of calm awareness.
  • Guided imagery: Send your brain on a journey to a beautiful, soothing place. This technique works by distracting you, although it helps ease pain in ways similar to meditation. Shut your eyes and imagine an idyllic "happy place" for you. It might be a beach, a beautiful room, or a favorite childhood spot. Use all of your senses to put yourself in it, remembering scents, colors, air, mood, anything that makes it come alive for you. Stay there, relaxing and enjoying.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Your whole body will feel deeply relaxed with this tension-melting exercise. Throughout, breathe slowly from your abdomen. First, isolate and tighten each muscle group, but without straining, for 7 to 10 seconds; then, release the muscles abruptly, resting for 15 to 20 seconds as stress ebbs away. Start with your hands and then move on to your forearms, biceps, face, neck, shoulders, upper back, chest, stomach, lower back, buttocks, thighs, lower legs, and finally, your feet. Ahhhhhh!

Try some of our other favorite stress busters.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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