Next time you have a tension headache or other minor temporary pain, you might want to try meditation instead of over-the-counter pain relievers. In a series of studies, researchers at the University of Montreal found that experienced meditators were less sensitive to pain and less troubled by it than non-meditators. MRI scans of the meditators’ brains showed changes in the regions related to experiencing pain, suggesting that a long-term meditation practice might have cumulative and lasting pain-relieving effects.
But even if you’re not an experienced meditator, it may be worth trying meditation for moderate short-term pain. In a study published last year in the Journal of Pain, researchers gave a group of students at the University of North Carolina just three half-hour sessions of meditation training. Meditation reduced subjects’ feelings of pain from electrical shocks during testing and increased their baseline pain tolerance.
Study author, Fadel Zeidan, explains that the meditation training taught the students to focus their awareness on their breath and, when distracted, to observe that fact without self-judgement, gently bringing their minds back to the breath. He says this helped them observe painful feelings non-reactively, as they would any other distraction (like a noise in the hall or an itchy foot), and calmed their emotional experience of the pain. (Their anxiety levels were measurably lower while editating.)
“Pain is a subjective experience,” says Zeidan. “Meditation is a way of changing the context of that experience. In meditation you experience each moment as it rolls by and you realise there’s no reason to react. You appraise sensory experience differently.”
Herbs can relieve pain without side effects. If you’re looking for other holistic alternatives to pain medication for minor aches and pains, try one of these herbal remedies.
When applied as a cream, capsaicin (a compound in chilli) damps down pain messages to the brain by reducing levels of a certain neurotransmitter.
Anti-inflammatory ginger eases cramps when it is applied as a poultice. Dunk a cloth in warm ginger tea, wring it out and then apply to your lower abdomen.
A dab of muscle-relaxing peppermint essential oil rubbed on your temples can calm tension headaches.