How Mindfulness Provides Relief from Chronic Pain

Just 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day can help trigger your brain’s pain-relieving power.

Illustration by Veronica Gretch

“This probably isn’t going to kill me, but it’ll hurt,” Danny Penman remembers thinking back in May 2006. Moments earlier, Penman had been floating serenely over England’s Cotswold Hills when a blast of wind collapsed his paraglider. He somersaulted head over heels through the air before slamming into a hillside some 30 feet below.

An agonizing pain engulfed him as he realized his leg was shattered. He slipped into shock; near-seizures shook his body. That’s when Penman deployed his secret weapon: He’d learned meditation as a student in England. In sheer desperation, he gave it a try.

Forcing himself to breathe slowly and deeply, he focused on the sensations his breath made. He envisioned himself in a beautiful garden and imagined breathing its tranquil air. Gradually, his perception of the pain shifted, so that it became less “personal” and intense, as if he was watching it on TV rather than experiencing it directly.

Over the next five months, Penman needed three operations to rebuild his leg. The pain—plus the insomnia, irritability, and anxiety—was excruciating, he recalls in his book, You Are Not Your Pain, written with Vidyamala Burch. 

The powerful pain meds provided by his doctors weren’t much help, and nausea was an additional problem. Some three weeks after he left the Bristol Royal Infirmary, Penman came across a newspaper article about a form of mindfulness meditation called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), developed by Mark Williams at Oxford University. “I immediately studied his book, The Mindful Way Through Depression. And then I had Dr. Williams teach me personally,” says Penman.

“My pain subsided and I slashed my intake of painkillers and other drugs by two-thirds about a month or so after the accident—I was initially taking 40 pills a day,” he told Mindful

Penman’s healing was so complete that he eventually hiked Britain’s 630-mile South West Coast Path—a goal he’d envisioned while in the hospital. He also became a meditation teacher and author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Chronic Pain—A Silent Epidemic

Chronic pain has been called our “silent epidemic,” says Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of California San Diego. Pinning down numbers of people suffering from chronic pain is tricky, because pain is subjective and we have no good way of measuring, he says. Official estimates range from over 25 million to 126 million Americans struggling with chronic pain each year—and Zeidan thinks that number could be significantly higher. 

Any pain that lasts more than three months is considered “chronic,” according to the National Institutes of Health. It can be caused by an illness or an injury and can last for months or even longer. Chronic pain can also bring sleep disturbances, fatigue, and appetite and mood changes. And it can limit your mobility—being in constant pain stunts your ability to take even a short walk, much less get to the gym or the yoga studio. As a result, your flexibility, strength, and stamina can take a nosedive.

“Pain is both mental and physical, and meditation is excellent at changing the mental aspect of it,”

Zeidan is a mindfulness researcher (and teacher) who, through his clinical studies, has discovered that mindfulness affects the way the brain processes pain. In one study, for example, his team exposed mindfulness meditators to painful stimulation. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they discovered that mindfulness affects areas of the brain that influence pain, including the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the right anterior insula. Mindfulness meditation, they found, reduces both the intensity of pain and self-reported feelings of the pain’s unpleasantness.

How Mindfulness Meditation Combats Chronic Pain

Mindfulness triggers a neurological, pain-relieving response. But what also weaponizes mindfulness meditation against pain is that it helps you cultivate a nonjudgmental, accepting attitude toward the pain, says Sara Lazar, PhD, Associate Researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Pain is both mental and physical, and meditation is excellent at changing the mental aspect of it,” she says. “You change your relationship to pain so that it no longer rules your life,” she adds.

What’s more, meditation promotes relaxation and combats the muscle tension and psychological stress that worsen pain, says Lazar. In Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was, in fact, originally created to ease chronic pain.

“The key thing about using mindfulness to ease pain is to have no expectations about changing the pain itself,” says Lazar. If you focus on getting rid of the pain, you won’t. But if you focus on reducing your stress and becoming mindful, the pain will lessen as a result of your practice.

Experts agree that you don’t have to spend hours in mindful meditation to ease pain. “Many people gain some relief almost immediately, but it will return unless they continue to meditate for 10 to 20 minutes a day,” says Lazar.

“Mindfulness helps you turn down the ‘volume control’ on the brain’s pain-sensing networks,” says Penman: This ends up reducing the amount of pain you consciously feel.