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How Meditation Helps Me Manage My Pain

Managing RA

December 17, 2023

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Photography by Ivan Gener/Stocksy United

Photography by Ivan Gener/Stocksy United

by Stefanie Remson

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Medically Reviewed by:

Kerry Boyle D.Ac., M.S., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., CYT

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•••••

by Stefanie Remson

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Kerry Boyle D.Ac., M.S., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., CYT

•••••

•••••

I’ve learned to use meditation to change my mindset and the way I manage chronic pain. Here’s a beginner’s guide so you can try it too.

As a nurse practitioner living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I can tell you that I’ve had my share of joint pain. I still do.

When I first received my diagnosis, my pain was very poorly managed. I was unable to work or even care for myself. I was given many tools to help manage my pain, including medications and exercises. My medical team even suggested that I file for disability.

Not until 18 months into a formal diagnosis did I have my first experience with meditation. A friend of mine who also lives with RA suggested we go to a free “meditation for chronic pain” event. I remember it clearly. It was on a weekday evening in the dead of a freezing-cold winter.

I had no idea what I was signing up for, but it was free and I was willing to try anything to help my pain. We went, and I’ve never looked back.

The basic skills we learned at that event have carried me in the years that have followed, and I anticipate that they will for many years to come. Meditation has been a game-changing tool to manage my RA pain and help me live a productive life.

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My pain and my mind

Pain is complex. Many factors contribute to it — nerves, muscles, movements, emotions, past experiences, and mental health, to name just a few.

I tend to think about the role my mind plays in this complex pain experience. “Mind” isn’t a medically recognized term, but in the West it’s often used interchangeably with “brain” while also referring to our consciousness and emotions.

For me, my thoughts about my pain are my own worst enemy.

Our minds not only contribute to how we feel pain but also take part in how we interpret and rate that pain.

For example, your brain can activate an entire army of hormones and cells through lightning-fast communications to help your body manage and recover from injuries that might cause pain. Your emotions can also affect how you interpret pain, with positive emotions usually decreasing perceived pain.

For me, my thoughts about my pain are my own worst enemy. When I eliminate all the emotions and feelings I have about my pain, I seem to still get stuff done and function quite well.

The mind plays a big role in controlling some of the communication mechanisms for pain. And I’ve often wondered, can we change some of the messages that are being sent?

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My experience with meditation

“Meditation” is an umbrella term and can refer to different activities and processes. I understand it as a process of training your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts.

Voila! Maybe I really can change some of the communication mechanisms for pain. Solution found?

Meditating helps me clear my mind to start with a blank slate each day. It’s like clearing off a workspace and starting fresh before beginning a new project.

I remember my first time trying meditation, and I was really surprised at the mindset it created. It made me feel more calm and able to take a step back — almost like taking a step away from the pain that usually engulfs me.

To my surprise, I wanted to keep practicing it.

Meditating helps me clear my mind to start with a blank slate each day. It’s like clearing off a workspace and starting fresh before beginning a new project.

Once my workspace is clear, everything is a little bit easier for me and I’m more efficient. This is how I use meditation to manage my pain. Starting from a clean workspace and a relaxed state helps me prevent the pain levels from getting too high to manage.

When I do this consistently, I feel like I’m changing some of the pain communication signals that are going through my body and mind, and I’m ready to cope with pain in new ways.

Can meditation change how you interpret pain?

While this is a relatively new field of research, there is some evidence to suggest that meditation can change how we interpret pain.

In a 2020 research review, mindfulness-based stress reduction showed improved pain management in people with chronic pain.

A 2018 study found that practicing mindfulness can lead to feeling less pain, even in people with no prior experience of meditation.

Meditation can also reduce symptoms of depression (which are commonly reported with chronic pain) and even improve quality of life.

A 2014 research review found that there are structural differences between the brains of people who meditate and those who don’t. But more research is needed to explore whether meditation can actually change your brain structure and pathways to cope with pain in different ways.

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A beginner’s guide to start meditating today

If you’re anything like I was, you might have heard about the benefits of meditation, but you simply don’t know where to start.

Here’s a short guide to one way you can start meditating at home today, without any up-front costs or risks:

  1. Find an isolated room with complete silence, if possible.
  2. Lie flat on your back.
  3. Close your eyes and focus only on your breath. Picture air going in and out of your lungs.
  4. Focus on your abdomen. It should be rising and falling with each breath in and out.
  5. Start by relaxing your face. Dedicate 3 full breaths to this. With the first breath, relax your brows; with the second, your nose and cheeks; and with the third, your lips and chin.
  6. Next, dedicate 3 breaths to relaxing your neck. Gradually move from one body part to another, focusing on only one part at a time.
  7. Dedicate 3 breaths to relaxing your shoulders and arms.
  8. Dedicate 3 breaths to relaxing your hips and pelvis.
  9. Dedicate 3 breaths to relaxing your legs.
  10. Dedicate 3 breaths to relaxing your feet.

If this practice is new to you, your mind will wander. When it does, simply bring it back to the part of your body that you’re focusing on. Give yourself grace and be kind. Staying focused gets easier with time.

If you have pain at the time, notice the pain, call it by name, and observe the discomfort you’re experiencing.

When trying this for the first time, aim to do it for just 5 minutes. You can work your way up to longer sessions as you feel comfortable.

Your home is the most convenient place to start meditating and practice your technique. If it’s challenging for you to find an isolated space with total silence at home, you might be able to find a public meditation group in your area. Many of these have both in-person and virtual options.

Any search engine will provide results, or you can check the popular website Meetup.com for some well-established groups based on your location.

Let’s meditate

Meditation is one tool that might help with your chronic pain in ways that medications and other lifestyle strategies can’t.

It really does make me feel like I’m changing the communication signals of pain in my body and mind.

If you don’t connect with the suggestions above, there are so many different types of meditation. Why not give one a try?

Medically reviewed on December 17, 2023

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About the author

Stefanie Remson

Ms. Stefanie Remson MSN, APRN, FNP-BC is the CEO and founder of RheumatoidArthritisCoach.com. She is a family nurse practitioner and is a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patient herself. She has spent her entire life serving the community as a healthcare professional and has refused to let RA slow her down. She has worked with The Arthritis Foundation, The Lupus Foundation of America, Healthline, Grace and Able, Arthritis Life, Musculo, Aila, and HopeX. You can learn more at her website and on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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