Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction & Chronic Pain

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Many Lupus Warriors are familiar with chronic pain — the kind that lasts for months or even years. Mindfulness-based stress reduction may offer relief, according to a recent meta-analysis.

Sharp pangs. Dull aches. Tingling. Pain comes in many sensations, but all are unpleasant and can interfere with daily life. 1 in 5 adults experience chronic pain, according to a World Health Organization fact sheet. 43% of American households and 36% of European households include at least 1 person battling chronic pain.

Pain falls into two categories:

  1. Acute pain
    • Shorter in duration (less than 3 – 6 months)
    • Directly related to soft tissue damage (e.g., sprained ankle)
    • Typically more sharp and severe
  2. Chronic pain
    • Longer duration (can last years)
    • Cause may be an ongoing injury or infection (e.g., autoimmune disease, cancer)
    • Impacted by environmental and psychological factors
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The need for new research

Two factors are increasing the study of non-medication-based treatments for pain:

  1. Increased understanding of the prevalence, imposed physical limitations, and economic impact of chronic pain
  2. Overdose and death from opioids has become a major health crisis

New prescribing guidelines aiming to reduce opioid use disorder can also make it challenging for people with chronic pain to get treatments

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Mindfulness-based stress reduction research

A January 2019 published meta-analysis in Evidence-Based Mental Health explored the effectiveness of alternative chronic pain treatments. The researchers analyzed 21 randomized controlled trials (12 of which met subsequent quality standards) on mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and chronic pain.

Chronic pain as a result of lupus was not specifically studied. Chronic pain sources included musculoskeletal pain, fibromyalgia, chronic lower back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, and others. 

Mindfulness-based stress reduction and CBT showed “clinically important advantages relative to control” for physical functioning, pain intensity, depression. This is particularly fascinating as control participants in some study arms received standard-of-care pain management, including medications.


What is mindfulness-based stress reduction?

As the name suggests, mindfulness-based stress reductions are interventions that help reduce stress by cultivating an awareness of the current moment (mindfulness). Meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga are 3 examples of mindful exercises.

The goal of these exercises is to encourage a body awareness and bring the focus to the present. These strategies make it easier to recognize body sensations, emotions, and thoughts and then to let them go.

In the research paper discussed above, the mindfulness exercises were administered by certified MBSR teachers or other trained professionals.

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4-7-8 Breathing

You can try these strategies out for yourself! A good one to start with is mindful breathing — also known as diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing. The goal of this exercise is to pace your breaths and generate a calm feeling. 


Quick tips:

  • Sit with your back straight
  • Try to keep your tongue touching your gums just above your front teeth during the cycle. When you exhale with your mouth open, you will breathe around your tongue



  1. Exhale completely through your mouth — make a whoosh sound
  2. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose. Count to 4 in your head
  3. Hold your breath and count to 7
  4. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound, and count to 8
  5. Repeat until you complete the cycle 4 times


To start, try to complete the exercise twice per day. As you continue, you can add daily repetitions or increase the number of breaths that you take. 

Looking for other mindfulness exercises? Check out these 22 individual and group strategies

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Chronic pain and medications

Medications will still continue to be an important part of the toolkit in the battle against chronic pain. It is not always possible to cure chronic pain. Work with your lupus treatment team to establish a safe and effective regimen. Even over-the-counter pain medications can be dangerous when taken at high doses or when taken in conjunction with other medications. Before starting any new medication, talk to your rheumatologist.


Prescription-strength medications, including opioids, are used in cases of severe pain. While opioids are strong pain relievers, they also come with a high risk of dependence and addiction. 


Opioid overdose risks are increased for people with reduced kidney or liver function. Be sure to check out these resources if you or a loved one is using an opioid for pain management:

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Over-the-counter (OTC) medications

OTC medications are available without a prescription, though they may still come in a variety of dosages. Be sure to read the labels to ensure you are taking a safe dose for your body weight. Always bring up new medications with your treatment team.

There are 2 main types of OTC pain relievers:

  1. Acetaminophen
    1. Tylenol
  2. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
    1. Aspirin
    2. Ibuprofen (Advil; Motrin)
    3. Naproxen (Aleve)
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Virtual Reality and Mindfulness

Normal mindfulness practices have been well-documented and are beneficial to mental health. However, mindfulness practices can often be difficult to adopt. This can be due to environmental factors, personal distractors, or simply the inability to find the right avenue. Virtual reality may be the answer, by providing an immersive environment for practicing mindfulness techniques. It can also aid in orienting users to the present moment, without distractions, within a tailored virtual setting.

Research and understanding has been limited, making it difficult to draw assertive conclusions. A study in Australia studied a sample of 37 participants from the general population. They trialed a VR mindfulness app in a controlled laboratory setting. The VR app presented users with an omnidirectional video of a peaceful forest environment with a guided mindfulness voiceover that was delivered by a male narrator. Results showed that overall state of mindfulness significantly increased, and there were no notable changes in negative emotion.

Virtual reality may be a new way to achieve mindfulness, by providing guided meditation and an immersive environment. Stay updated for new research and studies into the VR and mindfulness field.


Updated on November 3, 2020.

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction & Chronic Pain

  1. At age 46 I am diagnosed with Lupus. All new challenge and need to learn what is the best way to battle this and still have some quality of life. All this information is helpful.

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