Can You Meditate Away Back Pain? An Expert Weighs In

Meditation is praised for its many mental health benefits, but does it have the power to soothe back pain? Find out here.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become increasingly obvious that the world is looking for ways to relax in the midst of intense stress. In April 2020, The Washington Post reported that Headspace, a popular meditation app, said downloads of its app had doubled since mid-March of that same year.

Meditation back painCan you meditate your back pain away? Alongside its many COVID-19 pages, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a “Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19” page that recommends meditation if you’re dealing with pandemic-related difficulties. Even before the global pandemic, Americans were getting their om on: 14.2% in 2017, according to the CDC.

These stats point to the idea that Americans are likely more stressed than ever, something that can show up as mental health hurdles and physical pain—specifically, back pain. Turns out, apart from helping you reach a Zen-like state, meditation may help alleviate backaches, too.

“Numerous studies support both physical and mental health benefits of meditation,” says David Kiefer, MD, Medical Director of the University of Wisconsin Health Integrative Health Consult Clinic and a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. He adds that people might report less pain along with increased relaxation, less anxiety, and improved sleep.

So, should you hit the yoga mat, sit cross-legged, and meditate your back pain away? Read on to find out how effective meditation is and how to integrate it into your routine.

What Makes Meditation an Effective Pain Reliever?

When you meditate, you’re tamping down the “fight or flight” part of your nervous system while powering up the “rest and digest” part.

Dr. Kiefer explains it like this: “Conventional wisdom says that meditation decreases the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the ‘fight and flight’ response, and promotes the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation. This may be how meditation helps pain.”

Research also suggests that meditation can decrease a fear of pain, Dr. Kiefer shares. Simply put, he states that meditation is “a proven mechanism that helps people to cope with pain.”

What Are the Best Tips for Beginners?

If you’re interested in the relaxation and pain-relieving benefits of meditation but you’ve never uttered an om in your life, it’s easy to get started.

“Find a class,” Dr. Kiefer says. “It’s useful to learn from others, especially a trained instructor.” These days, it isn’t difficult to track down a virtual class. See if a meditation or yoga studio in your area is currently offering classes via Zoom or Facebook Live.

If a class isn’t up your alley, Dr. Kiefer says that an alternative is to listen to a guided meditation that appeals to you. There are many apps, such as Headspace, Insight Timer, and Calm that specialize in soothing sounds and guided meditations, and the bonus is that you can meditate at a time in your day that works for you.

When you do set aside time to meditate, Dr. Kiefer recommends finding an area of your house or office that is quiet, where you won’t be interrupted.

Lastly, he says, “Make meditation, of whatever length, part of your daily routine. For some people, that’s in the morning. For others, that’s in the evening before bed. Carving out some time from your daily life is important to receiving the most benefits from a meditation practice.” 

How Much Do You Have to Meditate to See Results?

You might be wondering how long and how often you need to meditate to experience some pain relief. Dr. Kiefer says, “Some studies have shown benefits with an eight-week class called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which includes two hours per week for eight weeks and continued practice. Other researchers have found some benefits with 8 to 10 minutes daily, but any amount of meditation, even just a few minutes daily, can be useful.” 

How Can Someone with Back Pain Meditate Comfortably?

The idea of pain relief through meditation might greatly appeal to you, but how’s this for irony: you’re not sure if you can sit for long periods of time with a backache. Luckily, you don’t have to sit cross-legged for hours to experience gains from meditation.

Dr. Kiefer says, “It’s important to be comfortable and be in a position that allows for slow, deep breathing or abdominal breathing. This can be in a seated position, inclined, on a cushion, laying with feet up on a chair and knees at a 90-degree angle, or walking.”

In other words? Meditate however you’re comfortable. You don’t have to look like a seated Buddha to reap the benefits.

Dr. Kiefer says that although the research supports an important role for meditation in helping people with back pain, it’s also key to have orthopedic and physical therapy follow up and other modalities such as massage, myofascial release, acupuncture, and exercise.

He says, “All of these tools combine to lead to the best benefit for back pain.”  

Updated on: 11/11/20
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