Yoga and Meditation Can Help Ease Chronic Pain

Mindfulness helped ease pain, depression, and disability in new study.

Woman meditating while practicing yoga in her living room
Study finds that practicing mindful yoga and meditation and help the body heal from chronic pain. Goodboy Picture Company / Getty Images

People with chronic pain found significant relief from their pain and depression after eight weeks in a program that centered around yoga and meditation, according to new research.

For the small study, 28 participants in semi-rural Oregon were enrolled in a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. Ranging from 34 to 77 years old, each person reported having chronic pain for at least a year. The group spent 2 1/2 hours each week practicing mindfulness meditation and hatha yoga. Between sessions, they were encouraged to meditate and do yoga on their own for 30 minutes a day on the other six days of the week.

At the end of the course, 89% of the participants reported that the program helped them find ways to better cope with their pain. The other 11% reported no difference.

The results were published in a study in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

An estimated one in five Americans has chronic pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unlike acute pain, which comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific like surgery or dental work, chronic pain is ongoing and can continue often after an injury or illness that caused it is gone.

Chronic pain can be linked to conditions like cancer, arthritis, headache, and nerve, back and fibromyalgia pain, reports the Cleveland Clinic. It is often treated with drugs, including opioids, non-narcotic pain relievers, and antidepressants.

“Chronic pain can lead to loss of ability to work, provide care for the family, and function and be a productive citizen,” Cynthia Marske, DO, an osteopathic physician and lead author of the study, tells Treehugger. “Research provides help for those who want multidisciplinary care so people can get back their lives. Medications don’t work for everyone.”

Marske says mindful yoga and meditation can help improve the body’s structure and function, which can help with healing. It doesn’t cure the illness, but healing means learning to live with a manageable level of pain.

“Once someone’s brain starts working better and functioning at a high level with MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction), often pain, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are not necessary and the body’s own inherent ability to heal will kick in,” she says.

How It Made a Difference

For the study, participants filled out online surveys to report their levels of pain, depression, and ability to function before and after taking part in the program. The results showed significant improvements in all three areas.

“Results showed an overall downward shift in the distribution of depression, disability, and pain scores after the course,” the researchers wrote.

Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) scores, used to measure depression, dropped by 3.7 points on a 27-point scale. Marske says the results were similar for some patients after using an antidepressant.

Pain Catastrophizing Scale (PCS) scores, developed to quantify an individual’s pain experience, dropped by 4.6 points on a 52-point scale. And scores on a shortened version of the Modified Oswestry Disability Index (MO) which assesses disability, decreased by 9.4%

“Mindfulness, meditation, and movement help people make their own neurotransmitters (chemicals of well-being), modulating the way pain is received, handled and processed in the brain,” Marske says.

“Much of the way we respond to pain is emotional. Getting people suffering from pain, depression, and anxiety to function better mentally and physically will help our society recover from any illness including COVID-19 or other illnesses.”