Is it possible to relieve pain without medications and medical procedures?
Over 70 years of medical research strongly suggests that this is possible.
One case in point involves the most common musculoskeletal pain disorder in the U.S. known as myofascial pain syndrome (MPS). A recent medical study indicates that meditation can have a significant and lasting effect on relieving the symptoms of MPS.
MPS is the most common pain disorder of the head and neck area in the United States. Over 200,000 people are affected by this chronic pain condition every year.
The symptoms of MPS include point tenderness in the face, neck and shoulders. It can result in tender muscle knots, pain with muscle use and even weakness in the muscles.
It is believed that the origins of MPS are in the brain rather than in the tissues themselves. There is good evidence to indicate that behavioral and psychosocial factors as well as stress, a lack of sleep and regular exercise contribute to this syndrome.
The traditional medical approach for MPS involves the use of mild pain relievers, anxiety medications, antidepressants and trigger point injections using lidocaine or botulinum toxin. Unfortunately medications only provide temporary relief and did not correct the underlying cause of MPS.
Physical therapy, massage therapy and biofeedback also can provide some relief, but lasting relief can be elusive.
A recent publication in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care (2017) explored the effect of meditation on MPS symptoms. It was shown that meditation may significantly decrease pain through a number of pathways including reducing activity of the sympathetic nervous system.
Meditation also increases calcium release, causing muscles to relax.
This may also be the mechanism by which meditation helps to lower blood pressure. Meditation increases blood flow to the tissues as well as increasing the production of natural antioxidants -- all reducing pain.
The regular practice of meditation also reprograms the pain receptors in the brain to be less sensitive. All of these processes lead to a decrease in pain that not only has immediate effects but can result in long-term reduction of MPS pain.
Some form of meditation is found in every culture in the world and dates back as far as recorded history. Meditation has been shown to decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, lower cortisol, change brainwave activity and can dramatically activate those parts of the brain that are specifically associated for emotional responses.
Meditation is beneficial for the management of chronic pain, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, reducing the symptoms of cancer treatment and even chronic fatigue syndrome.
There are many ways to meditate. Some involve a structured learning process such as mindfulness meditation or Zen meditation. Some are more passive such as guided imagery. Others may involve the repetition of specific phrases or mantras -- prayer can fall into this category.
The simplest form of meditation is simply learning how to breathe correctly and focusing on the breath. My clinical experience with meditation has been quite positive and I strongly endorse it for everyone.
• Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.