While meditation is known to provide access to a form of mental well-being, it is also effective in reducing physical discomfort, such as chronic pain. In fact, a significant volume of published research demonstrates that mindfulness meditation can be more effective than cognitive-behavioural therapies with chronic pain relief. So, how is meditation for pain reduction works? And how can you apply it to alleviate physical suffering in your daily life?

Meditation For Pain: Where Do Pain And Suffering Come From?

How Pain Emerges In The Mind

When we are hurt, pain is triggered to alert us and invite us to find a solution. It is, for example, the splinter in the foot or the burning pot from the oven. The information goes up to the brain along the nerves to warn us: we must not stay in this position, in this situation!

Also, our negative emotions alert us when our physical or psychological needs are not being met. The emergence of suffering gives rise to powerful feelings of loss, injustice and misunderstanding.

When pain takes over, the fear of suffering makes you lose all contact with yourself. Thoughts like: “I’ll never get away with it” condemn us to have no prospect of a better future.Movement, activity and travel are reduced for fear of increased pain: kinesiophobia is the terminology used to describe this fear. We focus all our attention on this pain (anxious hypervigilance syndrome), which puts us under constant tension. Tension that, in the long term, is morally and psychologically exhausting.

Why Pain Is Not Suffering

mindfulness and pain management
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

What complicates the situation in chronic pain is that we aspire to an ideal world. We flee what is unpleasant, have an aversion to what is wrong. And we throw ourselves on the drugs at the first headache that lasts a little… Suffer? No way! No way! Yet pain is not suffering: suffering is the consequence of physical or emotional pain. It is what we do with pain, the interpretation we give it, the judgment. Suffering is one of the possibilities for reacting to pain, but it is not the only one.

In so-called psycho-educational approaches, it is common practice in medicine to teach patients to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain is a biological reality, which can be corrected by analgesic drugs. Suffering is the psychological impact of pain.

Mindfulness Meditation For Pain Relief

Mindfulness meditation can relieve pain and prevent suffering

How Can Mindfulness Meditation Reduce Acute And Chronic Pain

Mindfulness meditation is about focusing on the present moment: our breathing, our thoughts, our body sensations, smells, noises, etc. It is a stance of contemplation, where one does not judge.

In meditation, pain is not us. It is a part of our body whose nerve endings are activated. In fact, if we can consider pain as a warning process, we can take a step back.

People who practice mindfulness meditation are encouraged to accept the presence of pain, but avoid letting their attention focus on it. Indeed, the natural tendency of our minds when we suffer is to focus on what makes us suffer: pain then occupies the entire space of our consciousness.

During the meditative “digestion” of suffering, we try to open the space of consciousness to other phenomena: pay attention to breathing, to parts of the body that do not suffer, to sounds; we try to observe the thoughts that arise from suffering (“I will not bear this for long…”) with as much distance as possible, etc.

Rather than driving the stress and suffering out of our minds, the idea is to “dilute” it into a larger container, made up of all that we feel, and not just the painful feelings. Needless to say, this requires some training…

When this training is regular, the effects become measurable, both on the subjective reduction of painful sensations and on the measurable cerebral signals.

Guided Meditation For Pain Relief

guided meditation for pain management

Guided meditations can be a tremendous help to reduce suffering and relieve acute or chronic physical pain.

The first step towards body scan guided meditations for pain is simple. Observe what is happening in the body, focus your attention on a physical phenomenon to observe it, without trying to label it. It is an exercise within everyone’s reach. And it can be practised at any time and in any place: it is not necessary to isolate yourself in a specific space dedicated to meditation to achieve it.

Mindful breathing is also a highly effective pain relief meditation technique. Simply focus your attention on the air that enters through the nose, goes down to the lungs, inflates the stomach and then goes back in the opposite direction. The stomach deflates, the air comes out of the lungs, then through the nose. Repeat these breaths several times.

Pain management meditations direct attention to the facts: “where is my pain, what is its form, its intensity? Rather than suffering pain, we become the guide of our thoughts again by examining what is happening in us, as an external observer. From passive and suffering, we take an active role again, simply by shifting our focus.

Remember that our brains are capable of transforming themselves throughout our lives. This tremendous ability to learn and modify the connections of our neurons is called cerebral plasticity.

Thus, meditating daily has the effect of modifying the structure of the brain and its functioning. The connections go towards an awareness of one’s body and feelings, without judgment, to abandon the reflex thoughts that undermine morale and dilute sensations of pain that lead to suffering.

Scientific Studies On Meditation For Pain Management

Scientific studies on pain relief by mindful meditation
  • In 2005, a study conducted by scientists at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and published in the Journal of Neuroscience. It shows that patients suffering from chronic pain have been successfully relieved through mindfulness meditation.

  • In 2008, psychologist Richard Davidson demonstrated that after 8 weeks of meditation, the area responsible for positive emotions (the left prefrontal cortex) increases.

  • In 2009, a team of American researchers, including Richard Davidson, Jon Kabatt-Zinn, Anne Harrington and others, developed a study that showed that mindfulness meditation reduces pain sensation by at least 57%.

  • In 2011, Dr. Zeidan conducted a study with a few colleagues, the results of which were published in the “Journal of Neuroscience”. This study showed that the level of pain decreased by 40%, thus reducing the effects of pain-related discomfort by 57%. These results corroborate with another study, that of Dr. Pierre Rainville, a researcher at the Université de Montréal. This study was also carried out in 2011, and the result shows that even if patients feel pain, they manage to ignore it and prevent themselves from interpreting the stimuli as painful.

Many neuroimaging studies have documented the changes brought about by meditative practices. These changes can be anatomical, such as the thickening of the insula, the region of the cortex that allows us to decode the state of our viscera associated with emotional experiences. But they can also be functional, with various mechanisms of action: several studies have shown that the least reactivity to pain results from two different mechanisms depending on whether we consider beginners or confirmed practitioners.

In beginners, it is a top-down control process, i.e. from the prefrontal cortex – (the highest hierarchical brain structure) to limit the activity of the cerebral tonsil (belonging to the limbic, or emotional brain). Broadly speaking, this corresponds to “calming down” through verbal strategies of self-control and objectivization of the pain felt.

On the other hand, more experienced meditators benefit from a bottom-up control process: their brains “process” painful information at the source, in the amygdala and surrounding structures, without the need for verbal strategies. It is as if meditation had improved spontaneous tolerance to pain, preventing it from turning into suffering.


In chronic pain, when painkillers and all treatments have been ineffective, mindfulness meditation cannot erase symptoms. But it can be relieving by changing our outlook, our experience. Without removing the pain, we have the opportunity to see it differently and influence it.

The many conducted scientific studies testify to the benefits of mindfulness on all kinds of pain. Meditators are permanently relieved, they have a better body image, and their mood improves — much more than in patients on simple drug therapy.

Scientists are positive: meditation practitioners react less violently to pain because some areas of the brain are less active. These are the areas responsible for cognition (prefrontal cortex), emotion (tonsil) and memory (hippocampus).

Meditation generates a particular mental state that dissociates the cognitive and sensory; it is not because we think it hurts that it is true.


Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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