People dealing with multiple chronic illnesses typically must manage pain and other symptoms on a daily or even hourly basis. Pain relief medications can be effective at managing pain, but many public health officials and practitioners are wary of the risks associated with these medications, especially potent opioid-based medicines.
A 2003 study conducted by the Medical University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing found that “clinical effects of meditation impact a broad spectrum of physical and psychological symptoms and syndromes associated with chronic illness, including reduced anxiety, pain, depression, enhanced mood and self-esteem, and decreased stress.”
Chronic pain is what most patients fear most about any illness or procedure, and meditation is increasingly used to take a different approach to pain management.
“We want to challenge the way we think about pain; to deal with it before it starts,” says Dr. Brenda Lau of the Vancouver Pain Change Clinic. “Getting a head start can stop the train … For some, the opioid overdose crisis is where the train can lead.” Doctors around the world are looking for ways to prevent opioid addiction and abuse, which often start with the recovery from surgery or some other pain treatment.
Chronic pain is a common problem. According to the National Institutes of Health, chronic pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. Chronic pain is the most common cause of disability in the U.S.
In addition to the University of South Carolina study, Clinical research has shown mind-body therapies are an approach that can significantly affect chronic pain. The purpose of these treatments is to help patients relax and improve the communication and connection between the state of the mind and the health of the body.
One study found that patients’ perception of pain was significantly reduced after three 20-minute sessions of mindful meditation (spread out over three days). Other studies have demonstrated that meditation produces analgesic benefits that can alter the perception of pain—but it was thought that these benefits were available only after extensive mediation training and constant practice.
The same study found that participants who practiced meditation experienced a reduction in their perception of pain even after the conclusion of their meditation sessions. This indicates that meditation may result in an overall reduction in perceptions of pain, not just during or around the time of a meditation session.
Chronic pain is a constant for many people in Chronic Care Management (CCM) programs. The perception and anxiety about pain and discomfort can further impact health with added stress. Meditation can help on both fronts, easing pain and the stress that can negatively impact blood pressure and heart conditions.
A study of 229 adults with chronic low back pain found that 47 percent of those practicing mindful meditation reported more manageable pain. The American College of Physicians and American Pain Society guidelines now suggest that doctors consider meditation therapy as one of multiple non-drug treatment options for chronic low back pain such as acupuncture, massage therapy, and exercise therapy.
Most meditation practices teach people to pay attention to their thoughts and feels, but then to release them as controllers of the mind and behavior. It is also thought that meditation helps people remember and focus on positive elements of their lives, further reducing the perception of pain. This puts the patient back in control of the experience of pain, rather than being controlled by it. The discovery that even a brief amount of meditation can have long-lasting pain relief benefits is good news for people battling multiple chronic conditions.
Approximately 133 million people in the United States suffer from one or more chronic illnesses, according to the National Health Council. This represents more than 40 percent of the population. Chronic Care Management is a Medicare program designed to help people with two or more chronic conditions access proactive preventative treatment by allowing doctors to check in with patients online or by telephone between visits. Medications play a critical role in managing chronic conditions. Other practices like exercise and meditation can also help patients manage chronic conditions and chronic pain.