Can breathing really help with pain? Yes, according to an article in the Journal of Neuroscience titled “Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation”. The article states that “After 4 days of mindfulness meditation training, meditating in the presence of noxious stimulation significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.” (Zeidan et al. – Journal of Neuroscience – 2011).
This is encouraging as chronic pain is often misunderstood and difficult to treat. According to a recent article on integrative pain management, it was stated that chronic pain affects more than 100 million Americans and costs over 635 billion dollars yearly. Chronic pain is characterized as pain lasting longer than six months and is associated with disturbances in sleep, mood, ability to work, and overall quality of life. Typically to manage chronic pain people often turn to pharmacological solutions, however, these interventions are not always effective and often come at a significant cost to the same areas chronic pain is impacting such as their social life, work performance, etc.
In addition to physical therapy, the good news is that there may be another intervention at our disposal that can reap almost immediate benefits and cost nothing but a little time. The intervention is meditation. Meditation or mindfulness is defined as focusing the mind on a particular object, thought or sensation, often it is focusing on the breath and dissociating with passing thoughts or sensations to gain an objective perspective. In the following example breathing is used to focus the mind and then the focus is brought to regions of the body. This is known as a body scan and it has been used for pain and also to improve sleep. Try the following “Body Scan”:
- Lie on your back or in any comfortable, outstretched position.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing, and feel your belly expanding gently when you inhale and receding when you exhale.
- Focus on your left foot. Feel any and all sensations in this area, including pain. Try to recede a little more into the floor every time you exhale.
- When your mind wanders, observe where it has gone and gently return your focus to the foot without judging yourself.
- If you notice pain, acknowledge it and any thoughts or emotions that accompany it, and gently breathe through it. See if by carefully observing the discomfort, you can help your body to relax. Don’t expect the pain to abate; just watch it with a mindful but non-judging mind.
- Gradually, let go of the focus on your left foot completely—even if any pain there hasn’t gone away or has intensified—and move on to the left ankle and repeat the process. Slowly and patiently, proceed this way throughout the body. (Mindfulness meditation to Control Pain, 2019)
In the article it is suggested that the practice take 45 minutes however you can scale the time to fit your schedule. Benefits have been achieved in 10-15 minutes. Meditation can also help to reduce the stress and anxiety that occur with long-term pain. So, carve out 15 minutes, choose a quiet place and breathe.
Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. The Journal of neuroscience: the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(14), 5540–5548. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5791-10.2011
Mindfulness meditation to Control Pain. Harvard Health. (2019, June 15). Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/mindfulness-meditation-to-control-pain