Chronic back pain is prevalent and annoying for millions of Americans. We try surgeries, pills, and whatever else our doctors can send our way in hopes of living free of the pain. Immeasurable productivity, life experience, and happiness is lost to chronic back pain,
Guess what doctors are STARTING with now for treatment? Not pharmaceuticals, but alternative treatments including meditation and acupuncture. This is based on emerging research showing meditation to be more effective than medication for lower back pain. Now, a new study demonstrated that meditation increased patients' pain threshold and tolerance, suggesting that meditation alters how our brains process the pain.
Fun side story- how do you measure pain in the lab in humans? You have them hold their hand in a bowl of warm water for two minutes and then ask them to put it into a bowl of ice cold water as long as they can stand it. Ouch indeed. This is widely used in psychological studies of adults and children and considered ethically acceptable. Healthy people can usually stand to do this for a few minutes. Generally men seem to have a higher tolerance for this than women, who interestingly demonstrate variation in tolerance across their menstrual cycle.
In this new study participants were asked to either meditate for 10 minutes or sit quietly for 10 minutes after their first exposure to the cold-pressor test. At the first test, there was no difference in pain measures (anxiety, unpleasantness, threshold, tolerance, and intensity). However for the second test, the meditation group had decreased anxiety and increased threshold and tolerance for pain.
Notice meditation did not decrease pain intensity or unpleasantness. What it did alter was the psychological aspect of pain. The pain was the same, but how well it was managed differed. This is what mindfulness meditation trains us to do. We cannot change the external world, our emotions, or our thoughts. But we CAN change how we respond and relate to challenges.
It should also be pointed out that the group of participants were not experienced meditators, and their guide a novice leader. All they had to do was simply bring awareness to their breathing in a simple meditation and their capacity to manage and experience pain was increased.
Pain sucks and it hurts and we understandably want to reach for the magic pill and make it go away. But there is a cheaper, safer, longer lasting, AND MORE EFFECTIVE alternative, meditation. So next time the back pain flares, reach for the cushion instead of the pills.