Mindfulness for chronic Pain: Behaviors that reduce discomfort

  • Published
  • By Christian De Luca
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing public affairs


According to a 2016 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 20.4% of U.S. adults suffer from chronic pain and 8% have high-impact chronic pain. One of the most commom reasons adults seek medical care, chronic pain has been linked to restriction of mobility, dependence on opioids, anxiety and depression, and the reduction of health and quality of life.

Jacklyn Urmey, 514th Air Mobility Wing director of psychological health, covered this topic during a recent seminar, where she discussed ways behavioral techniques and interventions can provide relief for sufferers and their loved ones. 

Although it’s very common throughout the population, people who have chronic pain can often feel alone in their struggle.

“Chronic pain may or may not have a known cause and many people that have chronic pain don’t have an identifiable stressor to point to, which can be very frustrating,” Urmey said. “That can make it really difficult for them to communicate to their friends and family why they’re in pain.”

Urmey said when someone suffers from a more acute pain, such as a broken bone, they are often flooded with support from the people around them, which helps them through the healing process. With chronic pain that initial support often wanes as time passes and the situation doesn’t improve. So people with chronic pain do not just suffer physically, they can suffer emotionally as well. They stop being as active, things they used to do become less enjoyable, and they can begin to withdraw from society.

Many pain medications, like opioids, only exacerbate the situation by reducing a person’s processing and judgement abilities as it begins to affect certain parts of the brain over time.

Urmey said much of the new research on the subject is focused more on behavioral treatments of chronic pain over medication. She said neither treatment leads to sufferers being pain free, but by retraining how certain parts of the body react and anticipate pain, people are able to reduce their discomfort to where it’s more controllable.

“Living pain free for someone with chronic pain is not realistic. They will always have pain to some degree,” she said. “But with behavioral management techniques, they can reduce the pain to a manageable level.”

Central Sensitization is when the nervous system, which alerts the body of pain, gets put into a state of high alert due to a constant or chronic pain. This state of anticipation and reactivity lowers the threshold for what causes pain which can increase the level and broaden the location of discomfort in a sufferer. Because of this, pain that would usually be three or four on a scale of one to ten registers as an eight or nine.

“Mindfulness is a way to put yourself in the moment and acknowledge yourself in a non-judgmental way,” Urmey said. “Not fueling the anxiety and pain, which can be very destructive, and decreasing the discomfort level.”

Certain behavioral techniques can help reduce Central Sensitization and restructure the way the body deals with pain.

·         Learning deep breathing, and focusing on breathing is a way to help curtail pain and stay present in the moment.

·         Imagery and guided imagery allows a person to focus on a relaxing place or thought. They can imagine with their five senses and that allows them to take the focus off the pain and “escape” for a period of time.

·         “Yoga is a huge help,” Urmey said. “The V.A. does a lot of yoga with PTSD, they do yoga for chronic pain and traumatic brain injuries. It’s been proven to be effective for everything that’s big and bad and it shows people that they can do more than they thought they were capable of.”

·         Meditation and prayer is another technique that takes the focus away from the pain by concentrating on something else.

·         Progressive muscle relaxation is where a person tenses and then slowly relaxes each part of the body, until the body, in its entirety, is in a state of relaxation.

Urmey said being kind to oneself and accepting the current situation is the first step to changing it.

“Accepting it doesn’t mean you have to like it,” she said. “But if you are fighting and resisting your current situation, it’s hard to get started moving away from it or changing it.

“The goal is to make things less aversive so you don’t get terrified of the pain. You don’t intensify it and you let it just be the pain it’s meant to be without letting it go any further.

For more information about using behavioral techniques to reduce pain contact Jaclyn Urmey at 609.754.2542 or jaclyn.urmey@us.af.mil.