Meditation can also have greater pain relieving effects than morphine.
The Telegraph (Sep 2011)
What is chronic pain?
Pain is nature’s way of telling us to pay attention. Either to avoid playing with fire, by putting a strain on a healing part of the body or to take whatever corrective action may be required. In that sense, it can be an incredibly useful function. Where it becomes difficult is when there is a chronic situation, and we don’t appear to know what to do about it. However, even these can be a force for progressive change if we know where to look for the answers.
We have pain receptors throughout our body, whether deep in the muscle tissues and organs or on the surface of the skin. Whenever there is a wound, chemical messengers get released from the damaged cells and trigger these receptors into sending messages to the brain. And if there is an inflammatory response, the inflammatory cells release chemicals that make these pain receptors even more sensitive. These receptors send their nerve projections via the spinal cord, which in cases of severe pain, create a spinal reflex moving your muscles away from the painful stimulus.
One of the reasons why we often get chronic pain in the back or the neck is the sheer density of spinal nerve fibres receiving messages that all is not well in the system. In these cases, often it is the slow fibre nerve cells which have been activated, resulting in a dull, throbbing pain. The alternative is that we have a trapped nerve or sharp pain sense, in which case it is the fast fibre nerve which has been activated sending a short, sharp pain signal to the brain.
Pain isn’t just a physical reflex though. Our sense of pain is modulated by a number of other factors. The interpretation of pain is hugely subjective and depends a lot on circumstances. Were you the only one to be affected, or was everybody? Were you responsible, or was it a force beyond your control? Do you have any historical cases of this type of pain and if so is there negative baggage attached to it resulting in a hypersensitive, hyperalgesic reaction? Do you have trees outside of your window or a brick wall? Are you able to self-medicate whenever you need or do you need a nurse’s acquiescence and assistance? And if you are male, are you currently engaged in a stimulating competitive endeavour? All of these factors have been shown to play a part in how much we feel pain.
And one of the most significant factors of all is … stress! Chronic intermittent stress ends up affecting the source, transmission and interpretation of pain, and as a result, intensifies a situation and in many cases causes it too.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the source of the pain. If our systems are chronically out of balance due to stress, then it is likely that our defences will be down and that either; an unsustainable level of tissue damage is caused, an imbalanced immune response has been activated, or the cellular repair function has been compromised by stress-induced shutdown. Any or all of these may be a cause of tissue damage and pain signals, and reason to seek alternative pain relief.
The important contextual interpretation of pain signals is also massively affected by our levels of stress. Even if the sensation-reading region of the cortex is identically activated by two different stimuli, the subjective experience of the pain from each one can differ wildly depending on the context of the stimulus in question.
Another reason why stress is such an acute aggravator of pain is its effect on how we process the pain response. Whenever we get stressed or have programmed a degree of stressful alertness into our system, the amygdala becomes over-activated and starts releasing all sorts of neurotransmitters that are responsible for the sensation of anxiety. This anxiety then bleeds into a hypersensitivity to all potential threats and maladies, and the brain starts interpreting everything as being more dangerous than it probably is, and thus, we have stress-induced hyperalgesia (sensitivity to pain).
Ingrained stress patterning, in the vast majority of cases, tends to shut down the release of opioids and block their receptivity. Opioids are a particular category of endorphins that are naturally produced and a far superior equivalent of the class of drugs known as opiates. However, the inhibited functioning of their release and uptake means we feel unnecessary pain more than we need to.
In addition, the branch of the nervous system which contains the memory of all our past hurts and emotions becomes very stimulated during the stress response. All of a sudden these pain signals are passed through the filter of old hurts and given additional fuel.
I came to Vedic meditation because I had a condition which caused me a lot of pain and was on medication which had side effects I would rather have avoided. Within a short time of learning, the pain cleared and I was able to come off the medication and I haven’t been on it since. It was a real relief. I have realised that I was suffering from chronic stress which was affecting the way I lived and experienced life. Things are different since I have learned – much easier and enjoyable. Everyday I meditate I know it’s going to be a good day.
Karen, Pilates teacher, Brighton
How does Vedic meditation help in managing pain?
When we meditate, the amygdala and the nervous system are brought back into a more healthy state of balance.
We stop interpreting our pain in such a negative way, and the result is, we feel an awful lot more comfortable, both physically and emotionally.
The deep rest gained from Vedic meditation means our systems are less strained and are able to function more naturally.
The immune system starts responding more correctly, and the cellular repair function is no longer inhibited. The result is effective alternative pain relief.
The production of naturally occurring opioids reaches more optimum levels, the receptors get cleaned out so that they can fully receive this welcome release, and we are thus able to take advantage of a far more sustainable and superior way of self-medicating.
Our naturally occurring opioids are three times more effective than morphine at diminishing the sense of pain, and unlike the external medicinal substitutes, they don’t come with side effects that compromise our ability to function.
In addition, meditation will also offset any cognitive impairment that may arise in tandem with chronic pain sensations by bringing greater functioning to all aspects of the brain, including short-term memory, long-term memory and learning functions.
My energy is gradually increasing, I am completely pain free (first time in 20 odd years) and yesterday I spent the morning just feeling happy…really happy because I realised it works! The moments with the mantra are very restorative. I can't begin to explain how miraculous this all seems.
Erica, Retiree, Devon