Imagine yourself hunched over in pain, unable to move. If you have suffered from debilitating pain, chances are you were not imagining it, but remembering it. Maybe you even winced a little at the thought.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world suffer from chronic pain. This not only impacts the quality of your life, it costs time and money. There’s doctor’s fees, medication and sick days from work. In the United States, chronic pain costs over $560 billion annually between medical expenses and lost working hours.

Doctors generally prescribe painkillers for most of us suffering from chronic pain. In some ways the treatment can be as a bad as the problem. Painkillers are often highly addictive opioids. In addition, pills may not be the most effective form of treatment either. Research in the USA shows that over half of chronic pain sufferers are not getting the proper medical care. For one thing, doctors worry about over-treating or under-treating a problem. This is particularly true if opioids are necessary.

Drug-free alternatives

There are always going to be sufferers who need opioids to manage. However, in recent years, doctors, scientists and researchers have been looking at alternatives, especially drug-free alternatives. Consider this — if you needed long-term pain management, wouldn’t you prefer a drug-free option? This would be better for your health and quality of life, as there are no side effects. It would also be better for your wallet.

Mindfulness meditation has shown great promise in managing pain. If you’ve not tried mindfulness, you may be sceptical. That’s absolutely fine! Nobody is saying that people suffering should flush their medicine down the toilet. But there has been some exciting findings in recent years.

The placebo effect

Last year, Wake Forest Baptist, a medical centre in North Carolina found that mindfulness is more effective at reducing pain than placebos. As you’ll know, placebos have no active ingredients. They often have an effect simply because a patient believes that they will. The placebo effect can seem baffling. However it truly does indict that the mind can have the power to heal the body.

Whenever a new medicine is tested for effectiveness, researchers undertake placebo-controlled trials. Half the people in the study get the real medicine, and half get the placebo. If patients receiving the placebo show about the same amount of improvement as those getting the medication, then researchers know that their shiny new drug is not very good. That’s why it is important to test mindfulness meditation against placebos.

Imagine a group of people suffering from chronic pain divided into three smaller groups. Group A were given a new painkiller to try. Group B were given placebos. Finally, Group C were not given any medication, but instead were taught mindfulness. If Group A showed the most improvement, you’d know that the drug was working. But if Group C also experienced a significant reduction in suffering, then you’d also know mindfulness meditation is effective too.

The researchers at Wake Forest Baptist found that mindfulness meditation reduces suffering by activating the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and anterior cingulate cortex. These areas of the brain help you self-control pain. They also found that mindfulness meditation can help deactivate the thalamus. The thalamus helps determine what sensory information reaches your higher brain centres. If you have ever tried to manage your suffering by breathing or relaxing your body, you’ll have some experience of this yourself.

How mindfulness can help

Fadel Zeidan, the lead author of the Wake Forest Baptist study explained their findings:

“While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion. This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation.”

How chronic pain affects your brain

If you experience ongoing chronic pain, it can change your brain structure in ways that are linked to depression, anxiety and reduced ability to think. Brain imagining shows that chronic pain can change the volume of grey matter in the brain and impair white brain matter connectivity. This means that some of the serious effects of chronic pain are not always visible.

Dr Catherine Bushnell and her colleagues at the USA’s National Institute of Health has been conducting research on the impacts of drug-free treatments for pain. They found that chronic pain can be prevented or stopped with mind-body practices.

Bushnell and her team used brain imaging to examine grey matter volume and white matter connectivity. They found that yoga seems to increase grey matter by promoting the growth of new neurons and strengthens white matter connectivity. What’s more — the more grey matter you have, the better you are able to manage your pain. Other studies have also found that regular exercise helps new neurons to grow — but if you suffer from chronic pain, many forms of exercise will not be practical or safe.

These results are very promising, and more research is currently being undertaken. However, if you suffer from chronic pain, throwing away your medication is not advisable — but learning mindfulness meditation, and using it in conjunction with your medication is certainly worth considering.