It may seem like the last thing someone with chronic low back pain would want to do is become more mindful. Traditional medical advice is to do everything possible to get rid of chronic pain: ice an inflamed back, heat sore muscles, take pain pills and injections, or cut away the pain with surgery. Of course, these interventions may relieve back pain in some individuals and they may be quite effective. However, one of the most fundamental ways to deal with chronic pain is to change the way we perceive it. We can change the way we perceive chronic pain through mindfulness.
Acute versus chronic Pain
No one should ignore pain that is new or more severe than it has been. Any instance of new, severe pain should always be evaluated by a physician. This is acute pain and may represent a disease process that requires specific treatment. On the other hand, millions of Americans suffer with chronic pain—a pain that is nearly always present and has been for a long time. Once pain has been evaluated and fully treated by a physician, all that may be left is to mentally deal with that chronic pain.
The psychological side of Pain
Pain is a surprisingly complex process. Bodily pain is straightforward—pain signals travel from a stubbed toe or an arm laceration from the injury to the spine to the brain. This part of the process is similar for most people; however, the way people react to and process pain varies significantly. The severity, intensity, and consequences of pain are affected by our fears, anxieties, and beliefs about pain. Indeed, the expectation of pain (e.g., an impending trip to the dentist’s office) may be more severe than the actual pain itself. By changing the way we process pain, we can hope to minimize it.
The key to Mindfulness
Our perception of pain can be changed through mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of the current moment without analysis or judgment. A thought is simply a thought, an emotion is simply an emotion, and a sensation is simply a sensation. Through mindfulness, one strives to separate the beliefs and fears we associate with certain thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Instead, thoughts, emotions, and sensations are simply experienced as they are.
What mindfulness is not
Importantly, people who practice mindfulness are not trying to “clear their minds” or “wish away the pain” because these are impossible. It is impossible to stop thinking or to overcome pain by sheer force of will. While it may seem counterintuitive, people who are trying to practice mindfulness for chronic pain relief are actually not trying to change their pain directly, they are simply experiencing the pain without the emotional and psychological pain attached to it.
Ideally, one learns how to be mindful throughout the day, in every moment. Initially, however, people usually begin by practicing mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation takes place for a certain amount of time, say 15 minutes, in which practitioners find a quiet, comfortable space to sit alone with their thoughts and sensations. The person practicing mindfulness meditation focuses on their breathing in an effort to experience the present without wandering thoughts, sleepiness, or boredom.
In clinical trials of mindfulness meditation, 57% of practitioners were able to reduce symptoms of chronic pain. In people who were expert in mindfulness meditation, 90% were able to reduce symptoms of chronic pain. While chronic back pain sufferers should still seek out high quality medical and surgical treatment, mindfulness and mindfulness mediation are effective at dealing with the day-to-day struggles of chronic pain.