All in the mind? Meditation to ease chronic pain

November 16, 2018 0 By NatalieM
All in the mind? Meditation to ease chronic pain

I had some dental work done on Monday – an old filling had to be removed and re-set. I was given two anaesthetic injections to numb my mouth before the work began.

Later on that evening, my teeth began to ache. I took a couple of ibuprofen and went to bed.

The Scream, by Edvard Munch, expresses how I felt while walking to town that day.

The next day, the pain came back, and I took more ibuprofen. I rarely take painkillers, but the pain was quite intense. And a couple of hours after taking them, the pain was still pretty bad. I didn’t want to take too many painkillers.

I had to go into town, and I was frowning as I walked. I was going to the cinema with a friend that evening, and I did not want my tooth pain to impair my enjoyment. I felt very uncomfortable.

I suddenly remembered having painful dental treatment about three years ago, and on that occasion I had tried to meditate as the dentist worked on me. I had focused my eyes on the ceiling tiles and tried to relax my mind. Amazingly, it had worked.

I decided to try this technique again – but since I was walking into town, I would try a walking meditation. I only discovered this type of meditation about a year ago, when I went to a “Silent Walk” Meetup event.

At the start of a group silent walk, you generally talk for about five minutes, so that you can relax in each other’s company, and then everyone is asked to stay silent for 30 or 40 minutes; to observe things around you, but if something attracts your attention, you just look at it for a moment and then turn away, so as not to get distracted.

The meditative “silent walk” last year.

I had found it surprisingly relaxing. We walked much more slowly than normal, and at the end of our 40-minute stroll around a park, we bought refreshments and had quite a noisy lunch!

So as I walked into town on Tuesday, by way of the park, feeling pain radiating around my upper jaw, I tried to abstract my mind, to slow it down. Walking alongside a river was really helpful, as the sound of the rushing water was relaxing and subdued distracting noises.

I focused my eyes on the ground, and the pace of my walking automatically slowed down. I relaxed my core and my forehead, let my arms swing gently at my sides, and ensured that there was saliva in my mouth, and no tightness around my face.

It worked!

It was almost immediately effective. The pain stopped radiating around my jaw, and was instead concentrated in the actual tooth which had been re-filled – but it was much milder, less intense. After a while I barely noticed it.

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I remained in the semi-meditative state for about 15 minutes, coming out of it when I reached a steep hill. Almost immediately, the pain returned, so I tried to get meditative again for a bit. By the time I’d reached the centre of town, I’d forgotten all about the tooth pain. And I didn’t take any more ibuprofen.

When I went to the cinema that evening, I was virtually free of tooth pain, only feeling a slight twinge later on.

The science

Mindfulness meditation can be practised in almost any position – walking, sitting or lying. And there’s a lot of research into its effectiveness for pain reduction.

I don’t remember reading about this before, but maybe I was subconsciously aware of it when I had the idea of trying to meditate while at the dentist.

A review of recent research, conducted in 2016, suggested that mindfulness meditation could help people separate the experience of pain from the effects of it, so that although they still feel the pain, it doesn’t bother them so much.

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According to Fadel Zeidan and David Vago, authors of the review, entitled Mindfulness meditation–based pain relief: a mechanistic account:

Mindfulness meditation is a technique that has been found to significantly reduce pain in experimental and clinical settings.

The number of studies demonstrating that mindfulness meditation can reduce chronic pain has increased significantly in recent years, the authors say.

The review also references an ancient Buddhist text called the Sullatta Sutta, (“The Arrow”), which says that those who regularly practice meditation, while fully experiencing the sensory aspect of pain, or the “first arrow” are able to detach themselves from the evaluation, or the mental trauma of pain, the “second arrow”.

I think it’s wonderful that modern, conventionally-trained scientists are building on some of the ancient therapeutic techniques and giving them serious evaluation.

Balance

When I was under a lot of stress in my previous job, almost 10 years ago, before I was made redundant, I used to go to a lunchtime meditation session at a nearby Buddhist centre two or three times a week. It was wonderfully relaxing and made me feel much more calm and balanced at work. The tooth pain episode has reminded me that it would be nice to bring meditation back into my life.

Have you found meditation to be helpful for pain reduction?

 

Additional photo credits

The Scream source

Main photo by Mitchell Griest on Unsplash