Reduce Chronic Pain Without Drugs

I’m in pain on the left side of my face from the jaw right up to my temple. The temporary cap covering what’s left of a back tooth fell off, and I didn’t have the time this week to return to the dentist for another one. He told me the discomfort is normal without the temporary cap, but no harm will be done  if I hold out until I get the permanent cap in a few more days. Advil has helped tremendously, but I don’t like taking more than two capsules a day so I’m putting up with the pain.

As I look forward to being pain free, I think how horrible it must be to live with chronic pain, with little or no hope that it will ever go away. I recall the hours of excruciating back pain I endured during labor with my first child in 1979. I wanted to be thrown out the window. It was THAT bad. It felt like someone was crushing my lower spine every time I had a contraction. Rather than focusing on the fact that the labor would end, my mind was convinced it never would. I wanted a solution for it. Ending my life came to mind. 

The Lamaze controlled breathing techniques I learned during my pregnancy were supposed to help me cope with the labor. That seemed like a cruel promise. Or maybe it wasn’t. Medical advances now show that techniques like meditation and breathing can help us become more aware of our thoughts, feelings and body sensations so that we can manage them, instead of letting them overwhelm us like mine overwhelmed me! 

This approach is the foundation of a treatment for chronic pain and illness called “mindfulness meditation,” that has been shown in clinical trials to reduce chronic pain by 57 percent, or as much as over 90 percent if you become an expert in the practice, reported Dr. Danny Penman in a 2015 article on about the effect of mindful meditation on reducing pain and suffering. 

“Imaging studies show that mindfulness soothes the brain patterns underlying pain and, over time, these changes take root and alter the structure of the brain itself, so that patients no longer feel pain with the same intensity. Many say that they barely notice it at all,” Dr. Penman wrote. Many hospital pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer (and the side effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, back problems, and migraines.

Meditation involves focusing on different parts of your body and  observing with the mind’s eye what you find . You’re “watching” your mind and body in action, observing your pain instead of struggling with it. “When you do this, something remarkable happens: your suffering begins to melt away of its own accord,” Dr. Penman explained. 

The Body Scan Mindfulness Exercise 

In HEALTHbeat, a newsletter from Harvard Medical School, stress reduction expert Jon Kabat-Zinn recommended practicing this “body scan mindfulness exercise” for 45 minutes every day as the best form of mindfulness meditation for pain conditions. “Whether you find the body scan to be very relaxing and interesting or difficult and uncomfortable or exasperating is irrelevant to whether it will serve you well. The goal of the body scan is not to relieve the pain completely, but to get to know it and learn from it so you can manage it,” he said.  

  • Lie on your back or in a comfortable, outstretched position.
  • Close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and feel your belly expanding gently as you inhale and receding as you exhale.
  • Focus on your left foot and feel any and all sensations, including pain. Try to recede a little more into the floor every time you exhale.
  • When your mind wanders, observe where it has gone and gently return your focus to the foot without judging yourself.
  • If you notice pain, acknowledge it and any thoughts or emotions that accompany it, and gently breathe through it. See if by carefully observing the discomfort, you can help your body to relax. Don’t expect the pain to abate; just watch it with a mindful but non-judging mind.
  • Let go of the focus on your left foot gradually and completely—even if pain there hasn’t gone away or has intensified—and repeat the process on your  left ankle.. Slowly and patiently, proceed this way throughout the body.

I tried the exercise for my tooth pain.  I actually fell asleep on the floor as I was going through it. I have no idea if the time I spent on the exercise worked, but I did wake up without pain!

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