Back pain. It’s highly likely that those two words alone triggered some type of negative reaction in your mind. Whether you have experienced it in the past, are dealing with it right now, or know of someone who has gone through a tough time because of it, back pain affects almost everyone. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is one of the most common reasons people miss work.
How Back Pain Changed My Life
I can completely sympathize with anyone who has experienced intense back pain as I have been down that path. In the last semester of my last year of law school, I woke up one morning to excruciating pain along my entire spine. From that moment on, my life completely changed. I could barely walk and couldn’t sit, so I couldn’t go to class. I couldn’t focus on my books long enough to get any work done. I couldn’t grocery shop for myself or socialize.
Multiple MRIs indicated that I had a herniated disc in my lower spine, however the extent of the pain did not line up with the extent of the herniation. I tried everything to manage the pain: countless visits to doctors and specialists; X-rays and MRIs; chiropractics, acupuncture, a steroid injection into the disc; way too many painkillers. Nothing helped.
After almost two years of trying every therapy I could find and having very little success, I started deeply questioning why the pain had arisen in the first place. I had practiced yoga almost every day for 10 years and was healthy and fit – not someone you’d expect to have this problem.
There are an infinite number of causes behind back pain and each person’s pain experience is different, which is why it is such a difficult problem to treat. Often, no single condition can be pinpointed as the cause of the pain and after going through all of the recommended treatments, the victim is still left with no idea why this pain is happening to them, what caused it, or how to fix it. This can be a very lonely and frustrating experience.
After exhausting all other avenues, I turned to the mindfulness meditation practice that I had dabbled in for years but had never fully committed to. My meditations consisted of focusing on the sensations within my body and paying attention to my thought patterns.
As I became more familiar with these internal happenings, I learned that I tensed my lower back and neck muscles every time I felt stressed or anxious. Years and years of stress and anxiety, which I thought was normal and didn’t really affect me, had built up in my body to the point that it had to physically force me to slow down. I never would have realized this without tuning into my body through practicing mindfulness meditation.
Meditating also helped me manage my stress, anxiety and negative emotions better, which caused the pain in the first place and which had increased exponentially because of the pain.
How Mindfulness Meditation Decreases Pain
Mindfulness means paying attention to what is going in the present moment without judging any sensations, emotions or thoughts that come up, nor resisting them, nor getting caught up in their story. You simply become an observer.
Once you begin to observe the sensations in your body, you will notice that there are a host of emotions and thoughts that accompany physical pain: your resistance to it, your sadness about it, your anger towards it, your fear that it will further restrict your life, etc. These are all very normal and natural reactions. However, the reactions themselves can generate pain in your body that may even rival the physical pain that caused them. As you continue to think about the pain and the harm it’s causing you, the pain is then further imprinted into your brain as your neural receptors become trained to focus on it. This is how phantom limb pain occurs – the brain is accustomed to pain that was once there and continues to perceive it even once the injury is healed or removed.
By observing the pain and the emotions that arise alongside it, without judgment, you learn to take a step back from these emotions and be less affected by them. With practice, your body learns how to relax, inflammation is reduced, your immune system improves, the release of "happy" neurochemicals and decreased stress hormones take effect, and your reactions to the pain become less traumatic or harmful. All of these physical benefits of meditation reduce the pain in your body and makes it easier to manage, until you can ultimately heal the root of problem that lead to your pain.
Through meditation, I was able to determine what had caused my pain in the first place and was therefore able to heal it. With time, safe strength building and patience (which I gained through meditating), my muscles relaxed, the inflammation in my lower back receded and my pain subsided.
My meditation practice keeps me in tune with my body and my mind, so I am aware of when I am getting too stressed and need to slow down and re-balance. When pain does arise, I recognize it as a warning sign and heed its signals. It no longer scares me or causes me to panic like it used to. Now, five years after back pain entered into my life, I am healthy, balanced and virtually pain free.
Practice: Body Awareness Meditation