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Can Meditation Help Control Chronic Pain in MPNs?

Posted on March 03, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Maureen McNulty

Myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) are cancers that start in the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. They begin with an abnormal mutation (change) in a stem cell in the bone marrow. Many people who live with MPNs experience pain. The most common pain-related symptoms include abdominal (belly) pain and bone or joint pain.

For some people, these blood cancers bring on new aches. For others, MPNs can worsen existing chronic pain.

There are many medications and alternative therapies that can help manage MPN-related pain. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find the right treatment. More than 4 out of 10 people with MPNs say they are unhappy with their pain management plan.

For many people with cancer, different forms of meditation can help relieve pain symptoms, ease treatment side effects, and improve well-being. There are several different types of meditation, and many people with MPNs use these techniques as a way to manage aches and discomfort.

What Is Meditation?

The word “meditation” includes a wide variety of different practices and techniques. Originally, meditation was a religious or spiritual practice that helped people reach enlightenment, better understand themselves, or contemplate the world around them.

Now, meditation is also used as a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that can lead to better mental and physical health.

Meditation usually involves a few different features:

  • Finding a quiet, distraction-free place
  • Making yourself comfortable — sitting in a relaxed position, lying down, or walking
  • Focusing your mind on an object, a word, or your breath
  • Trying to avoid judging or blaming yourself when your mind wanders or gets distracted — and instead, gently redirect your thoughts to your focus

About 1 out of 7 adults in the United States has used some form of meditation, according to a 2017 health survey.

The Health Benefits of Meditating

Meditation has a very positive impact on the mind. People who meditate often have a greater ability to focus on the present, stronger stress management skills, the ability to see stressful situations from a different perspective, and more patience and creativity. Additionally, meditation can help improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Meditation can lead to better physical health as well. Research is ongoing, but some studies show that meditation may help:

  • Lower blood pressure levels
  • Improve sleep
  • Boost the immune system
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Reduce menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, muscle pain, and sleeping difficulties
  • Lessen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
  • Enhance the quality of life in people with various health conditions
  • Improve cancer or cancer treatment symptoms and side effects, including chronic pain, fatigue, and sleeping problems

Although meditation offers many benefits, it can’t be substituted for medical treatment, lifestyle changes (such as eating a balanced diet or getting more physical activity), or any advice from your health care team. Meditation is a practice that can be added to these other health-building activities.

Types of Meditation

There are many different meditation practices that a person with an MPN can try. Some of these may overlap with each other or go by different names. Meditation can include:

  • Mindfulness meditation — Notice and observe your body or surroundings within the present moment
  • Guided meditation — A guide walks you through imagining a relaxing scene or situation
  • Mantra meditation — Focus on repeating a particular word or phrase
  • Deep breathing exercises — Inhale and exhale full breaths as you focus on the feeling of air coming into and leaving your body
  • Body scan — Slowly concentrate on different parts of your body, imagining gradually relaxing or feeling heat within each part
  • Qi gong and tai chi — Traditional Chinese practices in which you pair relaxation and meditation with physical movement
  • Yoga — Focus on your body as you perform breathing exercises and move your body into certain postures
  • Prayer — Read, speak, think, or write down a prayer based on your faith tradition

Can Meditation Help With MPN Pain?

Researchers are increasingly studying the impact that meditation practices can have on pain. They are beginning to find that meditation can be a part of a good pain management plan, particularly for people with cancer.

Meditation and Chronic Pain

Researchers have conducted many studies that have shown that meditation can decrease chronic pain or pain caused by various health conditions. These effects can be long-lasting.

Some studies also show that meditation may not directly reduce pain but can help a person better live with it. People who meditate tend to have fewer symptoms of depression and improved quality of life.

Scientists are still learning how meditation works to relieve pain. Some research shows that this technique causes changes in brain regions that are responsible for processing how we feel pain. These changes can make pain feel less intense.

Many experts recommend CAM therapies such as meditation in addition to more traditional pain-relieving treatments for people with cancer. These treatments can help support mental health, lessen symptoms, improve physical function, lead to a better quality of life, and reduce levels of cancer biomarkers (molecules that serve as signs of cancer).

Meditating While Living With an MPN

So far, only a couple of studies have been conducted in groups of people with MPNs looking at the potential benefits of meditation.

People with MPNs often use CAM therapies alongside their other medical treatments. In a recent survey, researchers asked people with MPNs about which integrative medicine treatments they used. The researchers found:

  • 1 out of 4 people with an MPN practices yoga
  • 1 out of 5 uses some type of meditation, including breathing exercises, mindfulness-based stress reduction, or walking meditation
  • About 1 out of 10 people pray or use some form of religious support
  • About 5 percent of people with an MPN practice tai chi, and 3.5 percent practice qi gong

In this study, people with an MPN who used meditation or yoga practices were not more likely to have improved symptoms or quality of life.

However, other studies have uncovered some benefits:

  • In one study, researchers found that people with MPNs who used a smartphone app called Calm, which teaches meditation, had lessened symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to a control group.
  • People with MPNs had improved mental health, better sleep, and a reduced symptom burden in another study of 128 people who meditated with smartphone apps.
  • An additional study showed that people with MPNs who practiced yoga were more likely to have improved sleep, less fatigue, fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improved MPN symptoms.

More clinical trials are needed to better understand how different forms of meditation can help treat MPN symptoms, including pain. Currently, researchers are recruiting people with MPNs for a new study that will examine whether a mindfulness meditation program can help improve quality of life.

How To Get Started Meditating

The simplest way to meditate as a beginner is to find a quiet, calm place where you won’t be distracted. Sit in a comfortable position, close or relax your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Choose one thing to focus on, such as your breath or an object like a candle. Try to keep concentrating on that one thing. When your thoughts wander, bring them back and begin focusing again.

It helps to start small. Try meditating for five minutes every day, or a couple of times per week. Once that starts to feel more comfortable, try meditating more often or for longer periods of time.

Beginning a meditation journey may feel intimidating, but many resources can help. You may also want to try:

  • Buying a book or audiobook about meditation or borrowing one from your local library
  • Downloading a smartphone app that guides you through meditation practices
  • Watching an online video that walks you through a guided meditation, breathing exercise, or yoga routine
  • Listening to a podcast containing guided meditations or meditation tips
  • Taking a meditation class online or at a local meditation center

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myMPNteam, the social network for people with myeloproliferative neoplasms, more than 2,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MPNs.

Have you tried meditation? Has it helped alleviate your pain? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

References
  1. Addressing the Adequacy of Current MPN Pain Management Strategies: An International Survey of 502 Patients by the MPN Quality of Life Study Group — Blood
  2. 8 Things To Know About Meditation for Health — National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  3. Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way To Reduce Stress — Mayo Clinic
  4. Meditation: In Depth — National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  5. Use of Yoga and Meditation Becoming More Popular in U.S. — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  6. Meditation to Boost Health and Well-Being — American Heart Association
  7. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis — Annals of Behavioral Medicine
  8. Does Mindfulness Meditation Improve Chronic Pain? A Systematic Review — Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology
  9. Mindfulness Meditation-Based Pain Relief Employs Different Neural Mechanisms Than Placebo and Sham Mindfulness Meditation-Induced Analgesia — Journal of Neuroscience
  10. Mindfulness Meditation — Cancer Network
  11. The SIMM Study: Survey of Integrative Medicine in Myeloproliferative Neoplasms — Cancer Medicine
  12. Associations Between Global Mental Health and Response to an App-Based Meditation Intervention in Myeloproliferative Neoplasm Patients — Integrative Cancer Therapies
  13. Smartphone-Based Meditation for Myeloproliferative Neoplasm Patients: Feasibility Study To Inform Future Trials — JMIR Formative Research
  14. Feasibility Study of Online Yoga for Symptom Management in Patients With Myeloproliferative Neoplasms — Haematologica
  15. A Distress Reduction Intervention for Patients With BCR-ABL-Negative MPNs or CML on Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors — ClinicalTrials.gov
  16. What Meditation Can Do for Your Mind, Mood, and Health — Harvard Health Publishing
  17. Myeloproliferative Neoplasms (MPN) — Leukaemia Foundation
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. Learn more about her here.

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