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Meditation has many potential health benefits, both physical and mental. Can it help with pain relief, too?

Many people find practicing meditation helps boost their well-being. Some say it helps them relieve stress, reduce anxiety, and improve self-awareness.

Along with improving mental health, meditation may also support physical health. If you’re experiencing chronic pain and looking for natural relief, research suggests meditation can help.

And if you’re looking to add meditation to your self-care routine, there are several you can get started with this mindfulness practice.

The definition of chronic pain is pain that lasts for more than 3 months. Approximately 100 million adults in the United States experience chronic pain. Examples of conditions that cause chronic pain include:

Meditation can help relieve chronic pain by triggering the release of endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers.

An older 2008 study involving 24 long-term practitioners of transcendental meditation found them to have a much lower pain response than the control group.

Another more recent study from 2020 found that participants with chronic pain who undertook an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course experienced a reduction in depression and pain scores at the end of the 8-week session.

Meditation may also boost your pain tolerance by lowering cortisol, a leading cause of inflammation, according to a 2013 study involving 30 second-year medical students.

A 2017 review of studies suggests that mindfulness meditation may be an effective complementary treatment, meaning people use it with traditional fibromyalgia treatments such as pain relievers, anticonvulsants, and physical therapy.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing your focus to your breath and observing any thoughts and emotions you experience in the process.

It’s important to note that while meditation may help you better cope with chronic pain, it’s not designed to treat the root cause of pain. Your experience with pain is valid, and we don’t want to suggest it’s possible to “think away the pain.”

You may find adding a meditation practice is a valuable tool for coping with chronic pain. But if it doesn’t work for you, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Body scanning

Jon Kabat-Zinn, scientist, meditation teacher, and founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), recommends doing the following body scanning mindfulness exercise every day for 45 minutes.

Here is how it works:

  • Lie down. Find a comfortable position lying down.
  • Close your eyes. Shut your eyes and bring your attention to your breath.
  • Breathe in and out. As you inhale and exhale, observe your belly rising and falling.
  • Bring your attention to your left foot. Notice how you feel and whether you’re experiencing any pain in the area. Continue to let your body relax and sink into the floor as you breathe.
  • Keep your attention on your foot. As thoughts come and go, continue to bring your attention back to your foot.
  • Take note of any pain you feel and what you’re thinking and feeling at this moment. Continue to breathe. If you experience any discomfort, observe it and help your body relax. This isn’t about alleviating the pain but instead observing it without judgment.
  • Shift your attention. Slowly take your focus away from the left foot and bring your attention to your left ankle.
  • Keep scanning your body. Continue up the body, and repeat the body scanning technique above.

Breathwork meditation

Mindful breathing focuses solely on the breath and changing your breathing patterns to promote relaxation. Like body scanning, you can also pair breathwork meditation with mindfulness meditation.

Consider checking out this free 5-minute guided meditation from The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA.

Visualization

Research suggests guided imagery may be helpful for pain management. In one 2015 study involving people with fibromyalgia, visualization helped reduce pain and depression levels.

To get started with guided imagery meditation, consider trying the Headspace app, which provides guidance on meditation visualization. Another app you may find helpful is the Calm app, which also offers guided meditation sessions.

Meditating regularly can have a positive ripple effect on all aspects of your mental and physical well-being. It may help improve focus, reduce stress, and even help you better cope with chronic pain.

But meditation isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. With a wide variety of techniques to explore, finding a practice that’s right for you may take time. Some people prefer guided meditation apps and podcasts, while others prefer online videos and classes.

The good news is that meditation is easily accessible. Once you narrow down the type you enjoy, you can look for an instructor or specific meditation series that meets your needs.

If you have difficulty staying focused, try starting with a few minutes of meditation, working your way up to 10 or more. Initially, your mind will wander, and staying focused can be a challenge. But if you stick with it, meditating will eventually become easier.

The more you practice mindfulness meditation in your daily life, the more likely it is to become a habit.