At Piedmont Orthopedics, we take a holistic approach to pain management. Strategies for relief include physical therapy, surgery, and physiatry, as well as other interventions to get patients moving again. Patients themselves have a great deal of control over their own pain management as well, including medication, stretching, and even meditation.
If meditation sounds too new-age-y to you, you’re not alone. However, numerous studies have found that meditation can reduce pain significantly: sometimes even more than medical painkillers. One of the most-cited studies supporting the effectiveness of meditation came out of the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem in 2011. Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study showed that meditation produced a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Not only did participants report lower pain levels after meditation, but brain scans also provided objective support for their perceptions; meditation significantly reduced activity in the somatosensory cortex, where the feeling of pain is produced. At the same time, it increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula, and the orbito-frontal cortex, areas that interpret nerve signals from the body.
The type of meditation most commonly used for pain management is called mindfulness, which focuses on fully experiencing the present moment without distractions. Mindfulness practices can focus on breath, or on body scans, or on multi-sensory experiences of the world. They key for pain management is not to try to repress feelings of pain, but to experience them, and then let them go. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, which is now widely used in pain management programs. The Arthritis Foundation recommends it, as researchers have found that even a short period of instruction can provide positive results.