Morphine or Meditation?

If you’re in pain what are you going to do, pop a pill or do some mindfulness meditation? sun & cloudsThere’s a lot of research that shows you’re better off doing the latter. Apparently meditation is better for pain relief than pain relievers. These studies have been going on for over thirty years and are so well-respected that in some parts of Canada meditation training is covered by their provincial health plan for those referred by a physician. That in itself is an interesting concept, doctors suggesting their patients learn how to meditate. Is this an admission that the drugs don’t work?

In the UK doctors are being told to heavily reduce prescriptions of painkillers and sleeping pills because of concerns that patients are becoming addicted. Instead they’re being asked to consider alternative treatments. That’s where meditation comes in. All this research involving heat testing and brain scans is showing that just one hour of meditation training can result in about a 40% reduction in pain intensity. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically reduce pain ratings by about 25%. Meditation appears to work by calming down the pain experiencing areas of the brain while at the same time boosting coping areas. Ah, the power of the mind.

Mindfulness meditation is all about being in the present moment; observing the breath, observing sensations in the body. It reduces worry about the past and future. Meditation is low-tech and low-cost and even the side-effects are beneficial. In one study statistically significant reductions were observed in  negative body image, mood disturbance, anxiety and depression. Pain-related drug use decreased and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased.

In another study participants described achieving well-being during and after a meditation session that had immediate effects on mood elevation but also long-term effects on improved quality of life. Several themes were identified related to pain reduction, improved attention, improved sleep, and achieving well-being resulting from mindfulness meditation that suggest it has promising potential as a non-pharmacologic treatment of chronic pain.

And the latest study suggests meditation’s calming effect could help those with stress-related chronic inflammatory conditions such as bowel disease and asthma. I remember my own GP telling me years ago that the only thing that had been shown to be effective in the treatment of auto-immune diseases was meditation.

There is a saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Most suffering, it seems to me, is the stuff we do in our heads; worrying about the future, churning over the past, never giving the present moment a chance. In mindfulness meditation the present moment is all important. Observing the breath, observing the sensations – including the pain – and knowing that this also will change. Sort out the pain from the suffering and almost miraculously most of the pain will disappear – well, according to studies, 40% of it at least.

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