I know you’ve been impacted by the opioid epidemic. Statistically, you’re very likely to know somebody who got addicted.But at the very least, you’ve seen the news headlines. You’ve seen the differences in prescribing practices when you visit the doctor or the pharmacist. It touches everyone.
These drugs were supposed to usher us to a bright future in health care — a future where patients wouldn’t have to tolerate pain, where healing from injuries or surgeries was peacefully comfortable, and where even if doctors couldn’t cure a condition they could at least keep patients reasonably comfortable while they lived with the condition.
It didn’t work out like that. People who use these drugs to manage pain will find themselves needing more and more of the drug for diminishing results, meaning they’re hooked on a drug that only scratches the surface of their pain.
Studies show it takes as few as 10 days on opioid pain meds for 1 in 5 users to get hooked.
On legit drugs. From a doctor. For legit pain.
This subject always speaks to me. I spent 25 years helping people manage their pain. As a massage therapist specializing in pain and injury management, I saw people working desperately to conquer their pain. They saw every kind of specialist and tried every folk remedy, menthol patch, over-the-counter drug, and multilevel-marketing goop their well-meaning friends recommended.
Sometimes I’d work for over a year on someone’s chronic pain. They’d see a few days of relief after every treatment, but the pain would come back, again and again and again.
Sometimes I’d get a new client who had already consulted physical therapists and surgeons and acupuncturists before trying massage out of desperation. And they’d get off the table feeling great. They’d think they’d witnessed some kind of miracle. Sometimes even I’d think I witnessed some kind of miracle.
My takeaway after 25 years was this:
Some people get better and some people don’t, regardless of the cost or sophistication or intensity of their treatment protocol. AND regardless of the amount of prescription pain medication they’re taking.
In fact, I saw people whose lives were nearly derailed by the mental/emotional effects of their pain meds, even while they were still in pain.
Here’s the thing.
Those drugs work great for acute pain. Like, the day after surgery kinds of pain.
But they do far too little for chronic pain. And what help they do offer comes at a too-high price: dependency, confusion, mood and personality changes.
Through 25 years of putting my hands on people who were in pain, I learned to see a subtle difference in the clients who would get better and those who would stay in pain. I didn’t know how to articulate that difference until I started practicing and studying mindfulness. Before then, I simply noticed — almost on an energetic level — a quiet but profound difference.
Some people were looking for something from outside themselves, something they could passively receive, through a pill or a needle or a practitioner’s hands. They were the ones who continued to suffer.
Some people were actively engaged in their healing, asking questions, learning the names of the muscles or the biomechanical processes involved in their pain, and consistently doing their homework in the form of exercises or ice packs or hot packs or stretches. They were the ones who got better.
Mindfulness folds all of these engaged approaches into one intentional package.
And mindfulness is proving to be the most effective answer to the opioid epidemic. It works for some of the same reasons massage therapy worked. It interrupts the pain cycle and shuts down our body’s alarm systems.
See, I initially studied in the school of seek-and-destroy massage. We all thought we had to beat the tissues into submission. It was often effective, but it was almost always painful.
Eventually, I got wiser. I studied more about the body’s physiological response to pain, and I learned that my elbow buried deep in someone’s painful trapezius was adding to the pain signals.
But when that same trapezius got kneaded and soothed during a session that delivered relaxation to the full bodymind, it healed better. It shut off the bodymind’s fight-or-flight response. It silenced the alarms, or at least lowered their volume to a tolerable decibel level.
This is what people are learning to do for themselves in this current climate of mindfulness appreciation. There are several simple steps to accomplishing mindfulness for pain management.
- Stop the struggle. We naturally react to pain by resisting it. Resistance tightens our muscles and raises our anxiety level. Mindfulness teaches us to assess our situation and meet it with compassion. It’s like the difference between the seek-and-destroy massage and the nurturing kind.
- Connect to what’s real. Mindfulness teaches us to know exactly how we are in the current moment. It teaches us to let go of our judgments or labels and simply see what is. I would always encourage my clients to find a number to describe their pain. On a scale of 1-10, is it a 3? A 7? This makes a difference. Clients who came back week after week and answered my general question, “Does it hurt?” would answer “Yes.” and feel defeated. Clients who were asked to be more specific would learn that last week’s 7 is this week’s 3. So, yes, it still hurts,but there’s progress. That changes the entire mindset.
- Focus on what’s right. Meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn started teaching mindfulness to some of the most seriously ill patients at the University of Massachusetts Hospital. The results were so astounding, they launched the movement we’re all experiencing today. Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction helped patients learn that even with cancer or a chronic degenerative condition, there’s “more right with you than wrong with you.”
Ready to become a believer? Here’s an easy practice, led by the master himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn. You’ll be surprised by the profound simplicity. Here’s a guided meditation that takes only 10 minutes.