Pain And The Mind – Thoughts Can Help Or Hurt

Pain management practices may take new directions after the results of three separate studies became known this month. They all show the powerful effect our mind and emotions can have on the level of pain that we feel, and how we handle it.

Depression and anxiety are closely linked to persistent neck pain, say a group of German doctors who studied 448 patients complaining of neck pain. 20 percent of the test subjects were classed as depressed; 28 percent were suffering from anxiety. Those who were both depressed and anxious had the highest levels of neck pain.”For successful long-term results, it is essential to consider psychosocial factors and to include them into therapeutic strategies,” says Dr. Martin Scherer, lead physician on the study.

A study from Glasgow, Scotland reports that music is a remarkable analgesic, allowing test subjects to withstand more painful stimulus than others. Pain researcher Laura Mitchell looked at different methods of distracting people from a painful stimulus, using music, math problems, humorous audio tapes, and pictures of art. Music seemed to keep their minds off the pain most effectively.

It wasn’t just any music, though, and it wasn’t uniform. Soft jazz or vocal music might do it for some, while others responded to classic rock or smashing techno-dance. What mattered was that it was the subject’s favourite music. Mitchell believes it is a person’s emotional attachment to the music that keeps pain signals muted inside the brain.

Zen meditation changes pain perception, says another study released in the journal, Psychosomatic Medicine. Meditators with at least 1000 hours of Zen meditation practice were able to withstand the discomfort of a heated plate longer than non-meditators in a study at the University of Montreal.

Meditation has long been known to change a person’s emotional connection to pain; both the act of slowing down breathing and settling into deep relaxation, and the philosophy of detachment and observing all sensations as just phenomena, allow meditators to view pain stimulus from a distance.

This study revealed something new – apparently long meditation practice physically changes how meditators feel pain. The test subjects who meditated felt pain from the heated plate at 50 degrees, instead of the non-meditators’ 48 degrees. That’s actually a big difference, says the report.

New methodologies for pain management may evolve from these studies, and others like them. Meditation may come to the fore as a doctor’s recommendation for sufferers of chronic pain; music may find its way into painful procedures, and where distraction is needed; and treatment for mental distress might become a common addition to pain therapy. It’s all certainly something to think about.