How could meditation possibly cure my pain? That’s impossible, isn’t it?

Channel Nine news in Brisbane recently ran a story about using “mindfulness” to treat back pain. A couple of patients have since asked me about it, so I thought I’d use that story as a catalyst for this month’s piece.

What is “mindfulness”?  Mindfulness is a form of brain exercise in which you try to keep your thoughts only in the present. While doing this meditation you attempt to let go of worries, thoughts and judgments, and concentrate only on observing yourself; most people find it easiest to focus on the inward and outward flow of their breath. Once you have achieved this state of mindfulness, you can then add other mental techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and positive thinking.

But, I hear you wondering, how could such a simple technique help overcome back pain? Surely fixing my bulging disc, relaxing my tight muscles or loosening my worn out joints have more to do with curing my pain than some silly meditation?

"Back Pain: How to get rid of it Forever"

I pondered this question myself at length many years ago when researching for my book “Back pain: How to get rid of it Forever'”.

I spoke with psychologists and doctors, and examined a lot of research, including some very interesting work done on chimpanzees. I gradually realized that psychological approaches to pain are one of many tools that you have at your disposal to help you improve your health. Just like stretching and strengthening exercises, physio treatment, good nutrition and keeping fit are all a part of the holistic treatment of conditions such as back pain, having the correct mental approach is another weapon that you can use to cure yourself. Even better, once you master the meditation techniques they are free!

As a result of my studies into the psychological aspects of back pain, I expanded the relevant chapters into a separate booklet entitled “Using your Brain to get Rid of your pain”. (Keep reading for free gifts at the end of this article!) This booklet explains how your mindset can either cause or help to cure physical ailments such as headaches, back pain and even arthritis.

It’s a very complex subject, but the summary is as follows:

Stressed mum

Modern day stress can arise from many sources

Stress from any cause – not enough money, fighting with your partner, or just being too busy with a young family etc etc – induces a reaction in your body known as the fight-or-flight response. In this state your body releases hormones and other chemicals designed to help you fight (to save your life) or to run away from danger. In ancient times this response was useful, but nowadays, when our worries are often more prolonged than being attacked by a dinosaur, the fight-or-flight response gets in the way. Ultimately it can cause pain and other physical symptoms.

How does the fight-or-flight response cause such pains and problems? First, the released hormones change your bodily systems so that blood flow and energy are diverted to your muscles in preparation for battle or escape. To facilitate this it shuts down or minimizes background systems such as repair and maintenance. This state is fine for a few minutes, but if maintained through a long stressful period then damage will eventually accumulate due to the low background rate of your body’s repair systems. This can cause many symptoms such as stomach problems, skin conditions, artery damage and even physical joint pain.

Second, the constantly heightened state of muscle activity causes them to become tight and overactive. Other muscles, especially the deep core muscles that are of little use in a fight-or-flight situation, become weak. This imbalance then causes joints and tendons to be moved incorrectly, and slightly out of alignment. When this faulty movement pattern is repeated thousands of times the joint, tendon or disc becomes worn out, inflamed and painful. Voila! Your mind has caused you pain!

muscle imbalance

Muscle imbalances cause injury!

Third, if your mind is in a heightened state of stress then it is far more susceptible to sensory input. For example, imagine you are sitting around a campfire in a completely relaxed frame of mind and you hear a twig break. You’d probably ignore it altogether. But now imagine that you’re stressed and anxious and hear that same sound – you’d probably jump and startle. Why? You’re anxious mind is in a flight-or-flight state, and is searching for any sign of danger. When in this state, all sensory input is heightened – including pain. So the same injury will feel worse when you are stressed compared to when you are relaxed.

So there are many well-established pathways by which your frame of mind can directly cause or heighten injuries and wear-and-tear. By learning mindfulness and other relaxation techniques you will have another method with which to help yourself feel better.

Old version - isn't that cover just awful?

Old version – isn’t that cover just awful?

To finish this article I have two special offers! First, to all readers of this blog I would like to offer a complimentary copy of an audio MP3 entitled Using your brain to get rid of your pain. To use this file simply follow the link to our publishing web site, download the file and transfer to your phone or MP3 player. You can use this track to help you master the skills of meditation and mindfulness.

The second gift is an offer to Bulimba and Mansfield PhysioWorks patients ONLY. I have recently released a new version of the booklet “Using your brain to get rid of your

The new edition of "Using your brain..." Available as e-book or in print form amazon.

The new edition of “Using your brain…” Available as e-book or in print form amazon.

pain.” However I still have some old copies of the first edition in stock. So if you would like a complimentary copy of the original booklet (it’s the one pictured here with that awful yellow cover) , please simply contact your nearest PhysioWorks centre and let us know.

Other readers can purchase the new edition of the booklet (as an e-book or in print) at a very low price from Amazon or your favourite online book store.

So start relaxing now and reap the benefits, not just for your mind, but for your physical pain and problems as well!

“Why does my back ache when the weather turns?”

Does it seem like your joints ache more when certain weather is approaching? There is one possible theory that supports your observation.

When rain is imminent, the extra water vapour in the air lowers the air pressure. Some academics have postulated that this lower air pressure is responsible for a minor increase in joint swelling. This occurs because the air pressure, which normally exerts a force on our bodies in all directions from the outside, is now lower, allowing the swelling to expand slightly. This extra fluid around the joint then leads to aching and stiffness.

weather cartoon

This theory explains the assertion of some arthritic sufferers that they can tell when it is about to rain because their back aches. However, this theory does not explain why the same people usually suffer from the cold temperatures in winter, the winds in autumn, and the humidity and storms in summer. Wouldn’t have anything to do with the condition of your spine, by any chance?

One study showed no correlation between weather patterns and the average pain level of a large group of arthritis sufferers (although my late grandfather would disagree…) So there is no hard evidence to support the air pressure theory above.

If you think the weather is affecting your joints, then you should work on the condition of your spine – do some exercise, use heat or ice, do some relaxation exercises or see your physio. Concentrate on the things that you CAN change, rather than worrying about things that you can’t affect, such as the weather.