Using The Mind-Body Connection to Reduce Back Pain

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By Sue-Ann Maislin
Published on August 12, 2014

Mindfulness-based meditation on a regular basis can help offset pain.

Mindfulness-based meditation has long been integral to improving the quality of life for people experiencing chronic back pain but thanks to recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience, we now understand just how important the mind-body connection truly is.

The science of neuroplasticity has shown that our brain’s function and structure can be adversely affected by long-term exposure to pain.  The MRI’s of people who experience chronic back pain have shown decreasing gray matter overtime.

Cultivating mindfulness-based meditation on a regular basis can help offset these changes and actually improve our neural anatomy.  Studies have shown that people who practice meditation for as little as a 10 minutes a day see an improvement in the intensity and duration of their back pain, as well as relief from symptoms of depression and anxiety that can accompany it.

What Exactly Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a simple concept but it takes patience and dedicated practice to become mindful.  Mindfulness is about purposeful awareness of the present moment; paying attention to what is happening in the here and now. When you’re mindful, you leave the realm of constant doing and just let yourself be.

There are many different ways to cultivate mindfulness.  All you need is a dedicated time and quiet place to practice, as well as a comfortable chair, mat and cushion to support various seated and lying techniques.

Support is also important. There are CD’s, books and websites that can help guide your practice (a list or resources is included below).  You can also enroll in focused programs, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which offer guidance along the way.

Mindfulness Techniques

Here are some techniques to help get you started:

Seated practice:  A simple way to become mindful is to find a comfortable seated position on a mat or chair, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath.  Become aware of each inhalation and exhalation, sensing the cool air flowing through your nostrils throat, lungs and into your belly as you inhale.  Sense the warm air leaving your belly and flowing back through your lungs, throat and nose as you exhale.  Become aware of the space between each inhalation and exhalation, as well as the sensations in your body between each breath. When you notice your mind wandering, do your best to gently refocus your attention toward your breath.

Start by practicing for 10 minutes each day, working your way up to 45 minutes.

Body Scan:  Find a comfortable place to lie down on your back, with your arms by your side. Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breathing (as above).  Use your breath to draw your attention to different regions of your body, starting with your toes and working up through the crown of the head.  Breathe into each region of your body by sending fresh oxygen to it as you inhale and releasing residual tension from it as you exhale.

Do your best to let things unfold and just sense and feel each region. You might sense tingling, warmth, throbbing, itching or cold or your may feel nothing at all.  Remind yourself to suspend judgment of bodily sensations, by labeling them as good, bad, harmful or painful.  If you do experience pain, visualize the pain dissolving as you breathe and let it go.  Take a deep breath as you let go of one region and draw your attention to the next.

Your mind may wander or you might find yourself distracted by a particularly challenging sensation.  When this happens, refocus your attention to your breath until you feel ready to focus on your body once again.

Practice the Body Scan several 3-4 times a week, working your way up to 45 minutes each time.

Resources About Mindfulness

Books and CD’s:

Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. New York: Delta, 1990.

Kabat-Zinn, J. Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and Our World Through Mindfulness. New York: Hyperion, 2005.

Boccio, F.J. Mindfulness Yoga. Boston: Wisdom, 2004.

Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness for Beginners. Sounds True: New York, 2006. Available on audiobook and CD. Provides instruction and guided meditations.

Meditation Apps:

Stop, Breathe and Think, free for iPhone users.  Provides three guided meditations between 5-10 minutes long.

Headspace, free for iPhone and Google Smartphone users. Provides a free 10 day program that leads users through various guided meditations.