Sometimes it is just all in your head

Jonathan Kaupanger
June 29, 2018 - 4:02 pm

Dreamstime

Chronic pain is a really, really complicated thing to manage.  Current treatment for chronic pain is very limited, so a researcher at Veterans Affairs is doing something to change this but she wants your help.

Mindfulness Approaches to Reduce Veterans Pain and Enhance Life or MARVEL is a six-year study that’s starting next year at the VA medical clinic in Minneapolis, MN.  The end result will be a new way to deliver a non-pharmacological, pain reducing treatment for veterans.

Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment.  Typically it's developed through the practice of meditation and other training.  Mindfulness meditation is one form of non-drug approaches to pain that has been shown to be effective, but there’s just not an easy way to get this to everyone who needs it.

“Right now some veterans use something called mindfulness based stress reduction at their VA,” said Dr. Diana Burgess, principal investigator and Co-Director of Center for Chronic Disease outcomes Research at the Minneapolis VA.  “But it’s really limited how many people can get into the classes and they are pretty time intensive so we’re trying to come up with broader ways to deliver these treatments that have already been shown to be useful for pain.”

Mindfulness works in two stages, first you learn to develop your concentration skills.  One way to do this is by focusing on something like your breathing.  You pay attention to your breathing and when you get distracted, you move back to focusing on your breathing.  “The other thing we’re developing is mindfulness skills, where we’re starting to notice other aspects of our mind/body experience,” explains Dr. Burgess.  “So we might notice an aspect of a painful sensation but instead of maybe tightening and thinking ‘this is terrible, this is going to get works, this is never going to get better...’”

By practicing mindfulness, Burgess said you can relax and start focusing on your anchor.  Then move on to other sensations you feel like pulsing, burning and then subsiding.   And then noticing that it’s kind of easing up and the sensations become more fluid.  Next you’ll start noticing the self-talk. 

“All of these things change the relationship that we have with our pain,” said Burgess.  “So it should work on a number of fronts.  You’re relaxing which really helps because stress acerbates pain.  But also it’s trying to change some of the habits that we know can contribute to pain.  There’s the bodily piece to chronic pain, but there’s the mind part – and it all works together.  We know that catastrophizing has negative effects on pain.”  

You don’t need to be part of Dr. Burgess’ study to check out what mindfulness can do for you.  VA has an app called Mindfulness Coach and you can learn about the benefits of mindfulness and start practicing with it on your own.

The mind and the body all work together.  Pain is a real phenomenon.  “Your mind effects your body and your body effects your mind,” said Dr. Burgess.  “When you have this physical pain, it’s really hard and it effects your mind.  If you’re not sleeping, that is a real mental thing.  But we also know that just focusing, relaxing, thinking about what you need, all of these things effect your body.  We’re trying to get away from saying it’s either in the mind or the body and that the mind stuff isn’t real, but that it’s all connected.”

The MARVEL study begins in March with 45 patients.  The full study of 375 men and 375 women will start soon after that.

If you are interested in being a part of the study email Dr. Burgess at [email protected].

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