An Alternative Approach to Pain Management

By Katherine Hagel

According to a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, at least 116 million American adults suffer from chronic pain — more than suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. When we’re in terrible pain, it’s hard to focus on anything, except how badly we want the pain to go away. Prescription drugs can help but that relief often comes at a heavy price. According to the CDC, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999, and so have sales of these prescription drugs. And, sadly, as many as 1 in 4 people who receive prescription opioids long-term for non-cancer pain in primary care struggles with addiction. Clearly, our culture has a long way to go when it comes to finding safe, effective methods for managing pain.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Increasingly, people are turning to the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness to help manage their pain. Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention, on purpose and without judgment, to whatever is happening in the present moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in the introduction of The Mindfulness Solution to Pain, “From the perspective of mindfulness, nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change or go away.”

Through mindfulness, we can learn to “be with” our pain without labeling it as bad and wrong and driving ourselves crazy trying to make it go away. We lean into the pain rather than desperately trying to run from it. We get curious about our pain and observe it from a slightly detached perspective, rather than over-identifying with it. By dropping our stories about the pain (I hate this pain. I should not be having this pain. I must get rid of this pain, etc.), we become a compassionate, non-judgmental witness to our pain. Interestingly, relinquishing the goal of getting rid of our pain and simply paying attention to it often helps alleviate it. And, even if the physical pain doesn’t go away, by changing our relationship to it, we can ease the mental suffering that often accompanies it.

Interested in using mindfulness practice to help manage pain? Try the following practice, which is adapted from Susan Smalley and Diana Winston’s book Fully Present, the Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness:

  • Try to get as comfortable as you can in your seated posture. If the pain is really bad, you may wish to lie down. Find the most comfortable position in which to practice.
  • First, take a few breaths and allow yourself to connect with the fact that your body is sitting (or lying down). Notice your posture and body shape. Now, find a part of your body that is not in pain and bring your attention to it. Find a part that feels pleasant or neutral, at the very least. Explore whether your hands, feet, or legs feel pleasant. Let your attention stay at this pleasant area for a few moments. Now, bring your attention to the area of pain. What do you notice? Is the pain sharp or dull? Burning? Stabbing? Fiery? Clenching? Is it moving, or does it stay in the same place? How deeply does it go into your body? Get very curious about the changing set of bodily sensations.
  • After a couple of minutes or so, bring your attention back to the pleasant or neutral sensations for the next few minutes. Notice if you have an attitude toward the pain. Do you hate it, fear it, resent it, blame yourself for it? Can you notice how you feel or think about the pain? Do you feel any accompanying body sensation like tension in your belly or vibration in your chest? Notice this reaction, breathe, and let it be there. There is nothing wrong with a reaction. If you have no reaction or the reaction stops, feel free to investigate the painful area one more time.
  • Return your attention to the painful area. What do you notice? Breathe. Feel whatever is present on the physical level. Offer yourself a little bit of kindness in a way that makes sense to you. You can imagine holding that part of your body with care and compassion, or just offer this attitude to yourself. Notice what happens.
  • Gently bring your awareness back into your whole body. Open your eyes when you are ready.

For further study and practice, I recommend the guided meditations on Jon-Kabat Zinn’s CD, Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief, which is available through Sounds True. Jackie Garner-Nix’s book, The Mindfulness Solution to Pain, is also an excellent resource.

Best of luck to you on your healing journey and, remember:

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