Mindfulness-based stress reduction was originally designed to help patients cope with chronic pain. Evidence now suggests that there may be a place for mindfulness meditation for back pain as the technique could reduce inflammation and neurogenic pain.
This type of pain management works by teaching patients to focus attention on their breathing, bodily sensations, and their thoughts. By focusing on their present, patients can learn to change their relationship to their experiences. This can lead to reduced feelings of stress, which may then have added physiological benefits.
How does mindfulness help with pain?
Mindfulness meditation for back pain has been popular for some time, but there’s been little work done to understand the mechanisms behind the benefits of this practice. People can experience benefits simply from being in a supportive, social environment while practicing meditation. Some people feel better because they are learning new things or interacting with a teacher.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to figure out how these benefits of mindfulness meditation for back pain and other conditions come about (Rosenkrantz et al., 2013). They took 49 volunteers and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. The first group took part in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR). The second group engaged in an 8-week active control health enhancement program (HEP) that included walking, balance, agility, core strength, nutritional education, and music therapy.
The two groups had similar decreases in psychological distress, but the MBSR group had much smaller inflammatory responses after stress. They measured the stress responses by analyzing levels of inflammatory cytokines in the treated skin, as well as cortisol levels. The analysis was based on the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and topical capsaicin cream to trigger inflammation.
Mindfulness Meditation for back pain – inflammation is key
This study suggests that mindfulness meditation may be helpful for those with back pain and other chronic inflammatory conditions. The practice helps patients change how they relate to their pain and other symptoms and their overall condition. This could then reduce their emotional neural reactivity and decrease the likelihood of additional symptoms.
Other studies have also supported the use of mindfulness meditation for back pain and chronic pain. In one analysis of 34 studies, researchers found that this alternative health practice may have benefits for immune function (Morgan et al., 2014). A more recent review concluded that, given the current epidemic of opioid use (and misuse), mindfulness training may be especially helpful for patients with chronic pain who want narcotic-free, self-facilitated pain relief (Zeidan & Vago, 2016).
The data so far suggests that mindfulness meditation for back pain may work best for patients with an inflammatory or immune-mediated condition. This could be rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, or any number of other potential causes of back pain.
Morgan, N., Irwin, M. R., Chung, M., & Wang, C. (2014). The Effects of Mind-Body Therapies on the Immune System: Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE, 9(7), e100903.
Rosenkranz, M.A., Davidson, R.J., Maccoon, D.G., et al. (2013). A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain Behav Immun, 27: 174–184.
Zeidan, F., & Vago, D.R. (2016). Mindfulness meditation-based pain relief: a mechanistic account. Ann N Y Acad Sci, Jun;1373(1):114-27.