If you’re someone who has been living with chronic pain, you may wish you could learn some pain management techniques that would eliminate your
There are people who go through life without being able to feel pain. But it's far from the desirable experience we might imagine it would be.
Without pain to let them know when they're doing something that will harm their body, they're extremely likely to injure themselves – especially as children. They could eat extremely hot food that burns their tongue without feeling any pain. They could hurt themselves playing outside – they could even break a bone – without feeling any pain. The parents of these children have to be constantly vigilant to make sure they don't injure themselves.
If you’re living with chronic pain, you may passionately disagree with the doctor of one little girl who couldn't feel pain when he said, “Pain is a gift.”
But it’s not hard to see that pain plays an invaluable role in our physical well-being. Its purpose is to warn us of potential danger to our body. And when the pain mechanism is working properly, once it has served that purpose, the pain goes away.
The problem is that, for a variety of reasons, the pain
mechanism doesn’t always work as it should. Yes, some of those reasons
are purely physiological. But the key to effective pain management is
the understanding that virtually any time we feel pain – whether it’s
short-term or long – our instinctive, emotional, and thinking brains all
play a major role.
Here are just a few of the ways our brain can cause pain that’s not directly related to a physical injury:
Some of the pain conditions than can be caused or worsened by the “nocebo” effect include:
Tension and migraine headaches
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome
Chronic abdominal and pelvic pain syndromes
Repetitive stress injury
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
The good news about pain that’s caused by your brain is that it can be
dramatically reduced – or even eliminated – by developing your MPFC and
learning to live more from that inner core of peace, calm, and
Virtually all pain has three components:
Both the affective and cognitive components of pain exist below the surface of your ordinary awareness. But even though you're not aware of them, they contribute to your experience of pain just as much, if not more, than the purely physical component.
The techniques offered in this section (as well as other techniques on this site) will develop your
MPFC. When your MPFC is stronger, you'll be more aware of how your feelings, beliefs, and expectations are affecting your experience of pain.
A well-developed MPFC also gives you more choice as to how you respond to and experience painful sensations.
With regular practice of the techniques, you may be pleasantly amazed at your ability to modify and reduce the pain you experience just by using the power of your own awareness.
For many years, I’d heard about the power of meditation – especially mindfulness meditation – to reduce or eliminate pain. Until 1994, I never had any reason to try it out.
In the winter of 1994, I started developing a severe toothache on the right side of my mouth. I got some temporary relief after going to the dentist, but it kept coming back - even after going to the dentist a second time. One evening, it became extremely painful and the pain relievers weren’t working. I remembered hearing about using mindfulness for pain relief and decided to experiment with it.
Instead of trying to make the pain go away by relaxing or distracting myself, I laid down on my bed and simply started observing the sensations. I watched from a very quiet place inside, without making any effort to change what I felt. Gradually, what I had thought of as ''pain" which I had to control or get rid of changed in a rather mysterious way. I became aware that it was actually an interesting web of sensations, some of which were unpleasant, and some of which – to my astonishment – were actually pleasant.
I also noticed that how I experienced the "pain" was directed affected by the way I attended to it. When I resisted or tried to make it better, it got worse. The more I relaxed my attention and just watched without any attempt to change it, the more it changed from unpleasant "pain" to an interesting mix of pressure, heat, and moving energy.
At one point – to my total amazement – the intense sensations actually became intensely pleasurable. But this required a level of focus that was difficult to maintain.
I can’t say the pain went away after this. I did go back to the dentist and he finally fixed the problem (yes, it involved a root canal!). But my experience of pain has never been quite the same since.
By sheer coincidence, I was contacted a few years later – after finishing my doctoral coursework – by a psychologist who was working with physical therapists and chiropractors in different locations around New York City. I was hired to work with pain patients, and saw more than 100 people over the course of a year.
I taught them to use mindfulness as well as other techniques on this website (breathing, relaxation, imagery, concentration, cognitive-behavioral therapy, along with music and other things I improvised for each individual). I was deeply moved to see how people responded to these practices, often in cases where medication, and even surgery, had not brought them much relief.
One woman I saw, in spite of two surgeries and a number of different pain medications, had not had a pain-free moment in nearly seventeen years. After a brief relaxation with music, she opened her eyes, and with tears running down her cheeks, slowly said, “I can’t believe it. This is the first time in so long I’ve felt no pain.”