Can Mindfulness Provide Pain Relief?

Chronic pain plagues about a quarter of adults in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It can stem from arthritis, fibromyalgia, cancer, a previous injury, or issues with mental health. Chronic pain is different from acute pain — while we might experience acute pain when we stub a toe, chronic pain lingers for much longer. People who suffer from chronic pain are also more sensitive to pain because the brain perceives it more intensely (via Everyday Health).

To help people manage their chronic pain, researchers and therapists are turning to mindfulness practices. According to a 2022 study in the journal Pain, mindfulness disrupts signals to the brain that tell us we're experiencing pain. It also weakens the thought loops that often accompany the pain. During the study, 40 participants had their brains scanned while researchers applied 120-degree heat to their legs. Half the participants practiced mindfulness, while the others merely rested with their eyes closed. The mindfulness group reported that the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain was reduced by about a third, and their brain scans showed a weakened connection between thoughts and sensations.

How mindfulness eases our experiences

The reason mindfulness can help with pain is that it reduces our subjective evaluation of our experiences. In other words, while we might not be able to avoid painful experiences, mindfulness helps stop us from ruminating about the pain. "For many people struggling with chronic pain, what often affects their quality of life most is not the pain itself, but the mental suffering and frustration that comes along with it," said Fadel Zeidan, associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine and lead author of the 2022 study, in a press release.

According to the Mayo Clinic, mindfulness helps manage stress and improves mental health because it helps us encounter our current experiences without adding our opinion. We make our problems worse when anxious thoughts paint our experiences. This keeps us stuck in a negative loop. Instead, we pay attention to the varying sensations we might be feeling, recognizing when they come and go. Mindfulness also can help us focus and improve our ability to make decisions because we're letting go of the excess thoughts that can distract us (per Harvard Medical School).

A simple mindfulness practice for pain

Mindfulness practices don't have to be complicated. According to Mindful, a simple body scan meditation can help manage our experience of pain, chronic or otherwise, by directing our attention to the fluctuations of sensations throughout our bodies. It allows us to recognize the body as a whole rather than ruminate on the pain of any specific part.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley suggests practicing this 5-minute body scan meditation three to six days a week. You begin in a comfortable position, either seated or lying down. Close your eyes if you like, and feel the support of the chair, floor, or cushion below you. Take some deep breaths, and feel the lungs expand and contract. With each exhale, invite your body to relax.

Starting with your feet, note the sensations, pressure, and temperature you feel. Move your awareness to your legs, then your seat and hips, noticing where you might be holding tension or feeling pain. Continue to scan up your body towards your stomach, hands, and arms. If you feel any tension or pain, see if you can release it, or just notice it without judging or resisting it. Work your awareness towards your shoulders, neck, throat, and jaw, softening any tension that you notice. Take a deep breath, noticing your body working as a whole. Breathe again as you emerge from your body scan, and introduce subtle movements in your neck, head, fingers, and toes.