Sometimes, my clients come into my clinic and pretend they’re not in pain. A lot of times, those same clients have had a loved one (or even a doctor!) tell them, “Oh, your pain is just in your head.”
But I have news for you: Every type of pain exists in your head. It just makes sense, if you really think about it. The brain is command central of the nervous system—so how else would we be able to register it? But that doesn’t mean that pain is fictional. Emotional pain, physical pain, intense pain, chronic pain—all pain, every pain—is real. And sometimes your brain has trouble telling the difference between a pain in your hand and a pain “in your head.”
When it comes to pain, there is a major mind-body connection—and I see it at work in my clinic every day. Consider the following:
1. People who have rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia are three times more likely to have been abused than people without those conditions.1
2. Up to 80 percent of amputees still experience “phantom pain” in their missing limbs.2
3. Taking painkillers (such as Tylenol or Advil) diminishes emotional pain,3 4and taking anti-depressants reduces physical pain.5
What’s more, a University of Colorado lab recently used fMRIs (a procedure using MRI technology to measure brain activity) to show that all humans have specific neurological pain “signatures” in the brain that are close to universal. Up until now, we’ve had no lab tests to prove we felt pain—our doctors just had to trust our subjective descriptions. (Hence, all that uncompassionate “It’s all in your head” nonsense you may have heard from others.) But their research also showed something even more empowering: We have another, separate brain connection that interprets our perception and sensation of that pain.6 In fact, researchers found that the people in the study could increase or decrease the activity of this system and, thereby, increase or decrease their perception of the pain. Pretty cool, right?
While this research may be new, our neural hardware certainly isn’t. We may not have had fMRI studies to prove how the mind-body connection works with pain, but humans have been using an effective tool to tap into our innate pain-relieving system for millennia: meditation.
A recent meta-analysis of 47 studies and more than 3,500 subjects in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that meditation has been definitively proven to decrease pain.7 One Wake Forest University study found that just four 20-minute sessions of meditation training reduced pain intensity by 40 percent. (Compare that with morphine, which reduces pain by about 25 percent.)8 Another study found that nine mindfulness meditation classes reduced the severity of women’s IBS symptoms by 38 percent (versus 11 percent for those who just belonged to a support group).9 Long-term meditators enjoy even more pronounced pain-relieving powers, probably due to the increased gray matter and thickness of their cortex.10
Even if your pain is “all in your head,” does that make it any less valid, any less worthy of finding relief? No. But armed with this knowledge, we can help equip ourselves to better manage our own pain.
2 Aldington D, Small C, Edwards D, Ralph J, Woods P, Jagdish S, Moore RA. A survey of post-amputation pains in serving military personnel. J R Army Med Corps. 2014 Mar;160(1):38-41. doi: 10.1136/jramc-2013-000069. Epub 2013 Jul 13. PubMed PMID: 24109094.
3 Dewall CN, Macdonald G, Webster GD, Masten CL, Baumeister RF, Powell C, Combs D, Schurtz DR, Stillman TF, Tice DM, Eisenberger NI. Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychol Sci. 2010 Jul;21(7):931-7. doi: 10.1177/0956797610374741. Epub 2010 Jun 14. PubMed PMID: 20548058.
5 Lee YC, Chen PP. A review of SSRIs and SNRIs in neuropathic pain. Expert Opin Pharmacother. 2010 Dec;11(17):2813-25. doi: 10.1517/14656566.2010.507192. Epub 2010 Jul 19. Review. PubMed PMID: 20642317.
6 Woo CW, Roy M, Buhle JT, Wager TD. Distinct brain systems mediate the effects of nociceptive input and self-regulation on pain. PLoS Biol. 2015 Jan 6;13(1):e1002036. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002036. eCollection 2015 Jan. PubMed PMID: 25562688; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4285399.
7 Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, Gould NF, Rowland-Seymour A, Sharma R, Berger Z, Sleicher D, Maron DD, Shihab HM, Ranasinghe PD, Linn S, Saha S, Bass EB, Haythornthwaite JA. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68.
8 Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain Mechanisms Supporting Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience : the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(14), 5540–5548.
9 Gaylord SA, Palsson OS, Garland EL, Faurot KR, Coble RS, Mann JD, Frey W, Leniek K, Whitehead WE. Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: results of a randomized controlled trial. Am J Gastroenterol. 2011 Sep;106(9):1678-88. doi: 10.1038/ajg.2011.184. Epub 2011 Jun 21. PubMed PMID: 21691341.
10 Grant JA, Courtemanche J, Duerden EG, Duncan GH, Rainville P. Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in zen meditators. Emotion. 2010 Feb;10(1):43-53. doi: 10.1037/a0018334. PubMed PMID: 20141301.