Unlike what most doctors told you in the past, back pain isn’t a “one-dimensional” disease. In reality, it involves your mind just as much as your body.
This biopsychosocial nature of back pain became more mainstream when the American College of Physicians recently included mindfulness-based stress reduction as one of the first-line therapies for managing lower back pain. Their new guidelines were fueled by numerous studies pointing out that opioids and over-the-counter medications aren’t only ineffective but also contribute to an epidemic of addiction.
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What is Mindfulness Meditation?
A lot of people are confused about mindfulness and meditation. The latter is doing things that make you feel good, whether it’s exercise, prayer, or as simple as cooking. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a type of meditation that helps you become more aware of your body and everything that surrounds you. Mindfulness is both a basic human quality and a formal meditation practice. You’re being ‘mindful’ when you focus on the things happening in your life, not distracted either by your past or future. When used in a more serious and structured approach, mindfulness evolves into a form of meditation that brings positive effects to your health.
While it has roots in Buddhism, mindfulness meditation is a relatively more recent innovation. It was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn who also founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts. In the context of back pain management, mindfulness meditation allows you to acknowledge the pain and recover from it by recognizing the fact that the body and mind are always intertwined. By focusing on your breathing or to something quiet or calm, you become more aware of your body and in so doing prevent pain from getting out of control.
It’s all about being aware of the pain without letting it control you. According to Jane Ehrman, a lifestyle medicine expert, meditation relaxes the muscles, decreases heart rate, and slows down respiration – all of which have a significant impact on pain reduction.
How Effective Is Mindfulness Meditation For Back Pain?
Mindfulness meditation is one proof that you can never underestimate the power of mind.
In March 2016, a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association involved 342 adults suffering from chronic lower back pain. The first group entered an eight-week mindfulness meditation course. The second group got into eight sessions of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), another form of mind-body therapy which enables you to change your negative thoughts and behaviors with the help of a psychologist. The last group, on the other hand, received the usual care, which primarily consisted of medications.
At 26 weeks, 61% and 55% of those in the meditation group reported improvements in function and pain, respectively. The CBT group also achieved positive results, although they didn’t sustain it as long as those in the meditation group. The usual care group got less than stellar results, with only 26.6% reporting of improvement in pain by the end of 26th week.
In a similar study published in 2015 in the International Journal of Yoga (IJOY), 88 patients with non-specific low back pain received either the usual medical care or traditional therapy complemented by mindfulness-based stress reduction. A non-specific low back pain means the pain has an unknown source and isn’t related to any underlying medical conditions like fractures, trauma, metabolic disorders, etc. By the end of the study, those who were trained to practice mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks reported significant reduction in pain severity compared to patients who only received the usual care.
Meanwhile, a study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine shows mindfulness meditation can be beneficial even for the elderly whose reduced mobility makes them more susceptible to back pain. A total of 282 patients with average age of 74 signed up to the study and were assigned either to the control group, who underwent educational program, and the experimental group, who were all taught and practiced three different methods of mindfulness meditation.
At the end of eight weeks, the mindfulness group reported more significant improvements in pain and function. They were able to sustain almost the same level of pain reduction six months later.
4 Easy Ways To Do Mindfulness Meditation Anywhere
Complementary therapies recommended for back pain aren’t usually covered by insurance. Fortunately for you, mindfulness meditation can be easily practiced at home without the need for any equipment or expensive online course. Whether you’re sitting, lying on the floor, or doing yoga, you can incorporate mindfulness meditation into daily activities and reap its positive results almost immediately. Listed below are some of the most common methods of mindfulness meditation you can try today:
Body scan is all about gaining awareness of your own body. You can do it on your own or with a downloadable audio file to guide you. It doesn’t require a specific position either. Do it while sitting or lying in bed, provided that your arms and legs are relaxed.
Draw attention to specific parts of your body. You can start from your feet, legs, and all the way up to the face and head, or vice versa. Spend a few minutes to each body part, taking note of every smallest detail–temperature, discomfort, the feel of fabric touching your skin, etc. In case your mind wanders, reframe your mind without judgment. No matter how many times you get distracted, keep refocusing your mind until the session is complete.
A quiet place and an intention to de-stress your mind are the only things you need to start a sitting meditation. Find a chair where you can sit comfortably and will allow your spine to maintain its natural curvature. If sitting on the floor, cross your legs and assume a seated yoga posture. Rest your hands on your lap. Close your eyes to avoid distraction. You can also open your eyelids as long as you find one thing to focus on to prevent your mind from wandering off. Listen to the audio or video file that will guide you on your meditation. Follow the instructions carefully, focusing on your breathing as you free your mind from pain-induced anxiety.
As with body scan, don’t be deterred when your mind wanders. Simply refocus it and resume meditation until you complete the activity.
Doing walking meditation is hitting two birds with one stone. If you have back pain, your tense muscles will benefit more if you get moving than staying in bed all day. Meditation, on the other hand, helps free your mind from the burden of back pain by focusing instead on your body and surroundings. Choose a quiet place–indoors or outdoors–where you can walk with minimal or no distraction. Place your hands at your sides or anywhere comfortable. Walk slowly and count your steps up to 10 before pausing. Notice your surrounding and each movement of your feet and body. Don’t feel bad if your mind wanders; keep going and reframe your mind after each distraction.
Walk another 10 steps. Pay attention to the sight, sound, and smell you encounter. Focus on them without overthinking. As you resume walking, turn your attention once again to the falling and rising of your feet. Pause for the last time and think about how you can incorporate meditation in your other daily activities.
Unlike regular yoga and aerobic exercises which put more emphasis on body movements, mindful yoga is about being in the moment, ensuring that your mind and body are in perfect harmony. It caters to people with different preferences and comfort levels. As shown in the video above, you can do it while lying on the floor or sitting in chair. If you find the movements a bit too challenging, you can modify them to suit your needs.
Listen to your body. You are the only one who knows what is comfortable and what is not. And by responding to your body’s signals, you’re also practicing mindfulness–an essential step towards your recovery.