Following decades of over-prescription of opioid pain medications—opioid addiction has reached epidemic levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, over 190 million opioid prescriptions are written in the U.S., each year. That has led to over 11 million reporting abusing the drugs—and at least 15,000 overdose deaths, from prescription opioids, alone.
Opioids, like oxycodone and hydrocodone, have their place in pain management. But the medical community has new awareness of the dangers, especially considering revelations of questionable marketing tactics by some manufacturers.
Problems generally arise when opioids are used for more than a few days. They’re simply unsuited for it. The body develops tolerance over time. The longer you take opioid drugs, the more you need to achieve the same effects—leading to overmedication and addiction. This is the situation many coping with chronic lower back pain have found themselves in.
Mind Over Matter
But drugs aren’t the only thing affecting pain response. We can also moderate pain with brain power; specifically, meditation.
For decades, meditation has been suspected to boost mood and moderate pain. Research is bearing that idea out. A 2016 University of Wisconsin-Madison study, for example, concluded that meditation is related to positive changes in the neural activity in several brain areas involved in stress and pain regulation. The study showed meditation can improve pain coping, long-term.
Focused on chronic lower back pain, study participants showed a statistically significant reduction in pain severity and sensitivity, using meditation as a component of cognitive behavioral therapy.
The Wisconsin study did not investigate the mechanism of meditation for pain. But some literature suggests it might affect serotonin levels to boost production of endorphins—natural pain killers made in the pituitary gland. We know it works, even if we don’t know exactly how.
I know it works, because I do it myself. Chiropractic is a physical occupation and I spend many hours each day using my arms and hands to treat my patients. That occasionally leads to a stiffness and discomfort in my neck.
I started a regular meditation regimen in mid-2020. I can tell you from experience that when that neck tension crops up, I can create a response, helping to loosen and relax the area, just through my regular meditation routine.
I recommend it for everybody. It’s easy to do, it could make a significant difference in your quality of life and it carries absolutely zero risk.
Most Americans have smartphones and many have smartwatches, too. Using an app is a super-simple way to get started. There are a bunch out there and many are free.
I like Headspace, which offers a free version—but if you work in healthcare, you may qualify to get full access without cost.
Like other meditation apps, you can use it to guide sessions, schedule reminders, take a class and download other resources. Even without an app, if you have an Apple Watch, you may have noticed it prompting you to “breathe” throughout the day. That’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s a way to remind you to take a minute, take some deep breaths, stop thinking about all the stuff you have to get done today and simply be present, in the moment.
Easier said than done, right? But I can tell you from experience that it gets easier with time. The more you do it, the more likely you are to keep doing it. The first time is the hardest. Getting your brain to disengage is a skill that takes practice. But if you try it once, you’re more likely to do it a second time. And a third. And so on.
Ideally, meditation works best when we set aside 10 to 30 minutes for it, each day. That sounds like a lot. It won’t be, once you get into it. When you’re in the zone, 10 minutes feels like a minute.
An app makes it a little easier and gives you prompts to help you stick with it. But you don’t need an app or any special equipment. That’s the best part. You just need to sit down, breathe, concentrate on the moment and give your brain a rest. You don’t even need a quiet room, once your skills improve. You make your own quiet.
Even if you’re not ready to install an app, Headspace includes some handy guidelines on the website. They even produced a how-to series on Netflix.
Between my personal experience and that of my patients, it’s no wonder meditation has really taken off—especially in 2020, when we could have all used some help coping with stress. In 2012, only 4.1 percent Americans meditated at least once per week. By 2020, that number had ballooned to 40 percent!
The research showing meditation as a way to help manage pain is focused on the lower back. But it’s not too risky to imagine it helping with other areas. All pain is made in the brain and nervous system—nature’s fire alarm to report an injury. When the brain is working on overtime or overstimulated, it’s safe to assume pain signals will increase, too.
Meditation helps quiet things down. It works on reducing lower back pain in a research setting and it works on my neck in practice. We know it can’t do harm and it brings other benefits—so it’s a simple thing to try to help yourself cope with pain.