Why Mindfulness Might Be An Effective Treatment For Chronic Pain

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The mind-body connection is real. Just look at this new study out of the journal Evidence-Based Mental Health: Researchers found that practicing mindfulness may actually be an effective means of relieving physical pain and improving physical functioning.

The medical community has relied on psychological treatments for physical pain for decades. One of the most prominent psychological methods for treating people suffering from chronic pain is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people learn adaptive behaviors and thought patterns that help them mentally deal with challenges and ideally lessen their experience of pain. In this study, the researchers wanted to compare how well mindfulness-based interventions helped accomplish this same pain reduction, in comparison to CBT or no such psychological interventions. Mindfulness generally refers to the ability to be aware of your present-moment experience, including bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts, without trying to judge or respond to them.

The researchers culled almost 200 relevant clinical trials and then closely analyzed 21 of the ones that specifically studied the effects of mindfulness and CBT on patients dealing with chronic pain. Their analysis included data on almost 2,000 such people, many of whom were dealing with musculoskeletal pain specifically. Their findings showed people who used mindfulness to deal with their pain had improved physical functioning, experienced less intense pain, and dealt with less pain-related depression or distress compared to people who didn't use any psychological treatment. In fact, mindfulness-based interventions seemed to be just as effective in treating chronic pain as CBT.

"Although a number of recommendations have been proposed to improve CBT for patients with chronic pain, an additional solution may be to offer patients mindfulness-based stress reduction since it shows promise in improving pain severity and reducing pain interference and psychological distress," the researchers said in a news release.

This analysis focused on group-based mindfulness programs that met regularly for a period of months, but past research has also suggested having a more mindful position in general can actually make people feel less pain. One study last year found that people who were naturally more mindful in their day-to-day lives reported experiencing less pain when stung with a hot probe in a lab setting. When scientists looked at their MRI scans, they found the part of the brain that deals with processing feelings about oneself (called the posterior cingulate cortex) was more deactivated during the pain experience for more mindful people. It seemed that mindfulness may have been allowing people to observe pain without attaching an emotional response to it, which manifested as feeling less intense pain overall.

Together, these studies suggest building a meaningful, sustained mindfulness practice, and developing our ability to be more mindful in our daily lives may be an effective way for us to manage painful experiences, whether you're suffering from chronic pain or simply going through a particular period of ache and illness.

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