Let's take a look at one common meditation practice in order to get a feel for what the practice is about. The body scan is a typical starting point in meditation, and it involves taking account of each body part.
In the body scan, the meditator "checks in" with his or her foot, stomach, hamstring, chest, shoulder and so on, one at a time. The idea is to focus on that part enough to really feel it -- is my foot tense? Is it in pain? Is it relaxed, or tired or achy? By using the mind to achieve such an intimate connection with the body, a person becomes far more aware of what's going on with his or her physical form. That awareness can eventually lead to the ability to consciously control the body with the mind.
This control allows people to manage many types of pain -- whether it's chronic pain or the pain following a medical procedure. Across the board, people report feeling less anxious and better able to tolerate discomfort. Their psychological anguish in the face of intense pain decreases. In one study of patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, the 63 subjects reported a 30 percent average reduction in mental distress [source: NPR].
But there's more. Studies show definite physiological changes resulting from meditation. A 2006 study broke subjects into two groups -- one that meditated regularly, and one that didn't, and had them stick their fingers in very hot water while hooked up to fMRI brain scans. The meditating group had up to 50 percent less brain activity in areas associated with pain responses [source: Medscape].
Other studies show that the body's hormonal responses to pain are altered by meditation. The stress hormone cortisol is released by the brain in response to panic -- it's part of the fight-or-flight response, and it keeps the body in a state of high alert. In the case of bodily pain, high alert means experiencing this pain in the deepest way possible. Patients who meditate have lower levels of cortisol in their bodies when pain strikes [source: TIME]. Patients who meditate have even been shown to bleed less during surgery [source: TIME]. Heart patients who meditate have lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure [source: TIME]. Surgery patients who meditate tend to heal faster [source: Caring].
How can meditation achieve these types of responses?
While no one is entirely sure, there are a lot of good theories out there. It certainly has something to do with the body and mind's relaxation, which decreases the intensity of pain [source: CNN]. There also seems to be a connection to the body's chemical responses. Since pain is really all about the brain's response to nerve signals, the mind can alter it to a degree. During meditation, the brain releases "feel good" endorphins, which can counteract the brain's response to pain signals, making the experience of pain much more bearable. Meditation also produces a stronger immune response by increasing activity in the endocrine and nervous systems, which help to regulate the body's repair reaction to disease and injury [source: Caring]. This could be part of why patients who meditate heal faster.
What's clear is that meditation, over time, enables people to control their brains' responses to chemical signals. It may even let people control which chemicals are released and interpreted by their brains in the first place. These are handy abilities after surgery, when pain can be the central experience during all waking moments. Whatever else meditation does, it makes managing such pain a lot easier.
For more information on meditation and other complementary-medicine techniques, go to the links on the next page.