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Physical Pain Reconsidered: the body scan

1 Heart it! Paul Gregory 52
July 30, 2018
Paul Gregory
1 Heart it! 52

The last three weeks leading up to my birthday have been tough. I have experienced numerous bouts with my lower back over the past 20 years. Two years ago, I herniated the L45, L5 vertebrae in my lower back. Ultimately, I chose to postpone double – fusion surgery until such a time when the pain worsened. Well, that day seemingly reared its head 19 days ago when I left my doctor’s office in a stretcher for an ambulance ride to the emergency room (E.R.).

Some might be thinking, “Why didn’t you simply drive yourself to the E.R.?” Yes! Several of the medical staff talked during my stint at the doctor’s office about this option. And the bill that I am sure to receive in the coming days will confirm that this indeed would have been the more modest transportation method. Others might ask, “For what reason did you go to the E.R., Paul?” Another excellent question! Let me explain.

All of these pre – birthday events were the direct result of neuralgia, which is the clinical term for nerve pain. Neuralgia has been described as chronic prickling, tingling, or burning sensations. I have had the chronic prickling for some time since having a micro lumbar discectomy of my L45 vertebrae 22 years ago. Although the prickly pain is not pleasant, it is much nicer than its older brothers “stabbing” and “burning.” But one really “ups the ante” when the stabbing and burning intensifies to the point that you believe you might lose consciousness. Which brings me back to my story, as that is precisely what I told the 20–year old nursing student who asked me why I was leaning against the wall instead of leaving the doctor’s office.

I was pleasantly surprised when the firefighter and police officer showed up to the doctor’s office within minutes of the ambulance request. And the examination room became quite cramped once the three paramedics arrived, what with one registered nurse, my doctor, the nursing student, the police officer, and firefighter.

Upon arriving at the E.R., I was rolled out of the ambulance and quickly whisked into an examination room. This was uneventful save the emergency room nurse asking the paramedic if I could sit up in a chair (“Nope” was his only reply). The E.R. doctor entered my room, asked a couple of questions, and proposed an injection of Dilaudid and Valium to calm my body. A quick needle stick, some water, and a little pill coupled with a 30–minute wait allowed me to return home.

Fast forward 19 days.

Over the past 19 days, I have learned firsthand how meditation, specifically the body scan, can reduce (not cure) physical pain, especially the suffering part of it. Although a student and instructor of meditation, I never fully embraced meditation as a way to deal with physical pain. However, while recovering at home, I decided to explore this avenue as a method to manage my back pain. Below are some things I learned.

The body scan is a form of meditation that has assisted many people in dealing with their physical pain. It is performed by non-judgmentally examining the entire body with the mind. Beginning at the feet and moving up to the top of the head, one devotes their full attention on each part of their body (i.e., toes, feet, calves…stomach, heart, neck, head) with a child-like curiosity and gentleness. Importantly, the focus on each body part should be unprejudiced. We are merely becoming aware of how that body part feels at that moment and then moving on to the next.

For some, the body scan offers a method to “befriend” one’s physical pain. For example, when we focus on the physical sensations of pain, we begin to identify the various stinging, burning, sharp, and dull contours of the pain. We also have the opportunity to recognize the length, width, and breadth of these physical sensations. Does our pain pulse? Does it cover a large or small area of our bodies? Also, as we befriend our pain, we learn that these physical sensations are not static; rather they change over time. The intensity and duration of these sensations vary over time.

The body scan offers a method to embrace our physical pain, thus changing our attitude toward it. Yes, we still have pain, but the suffering subsides. Through meditation and particularly the body scan, we can begin to view the physical pain sensations as similar to other normal sensations we experience during the day.

Below are 3 guided meditations I found helpful during my recovery:

From Pain to Peace,” by Bethany A. Hagan (free on Insight Timer App).

Body Scan Meditation,” by Kate James (free on Insight Timer App).

Body Scan,” by Elisha Goldstein (free on Insight Timer App).

 

My wife and I leave tomorrow for our annual summer vacation. This year, I have a newfound gratitude for my recovering body, as well as the new discovery about my experience of physical pain. Yeah, I am still moving slow and continue to have a nerve pain, but for now, I am grateful that I am able to sit mostly pain-free (and definitely a lot less suffering) as I type these last few words.

~

Paul D. Gregory is associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, Criminology, and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater. He is a certified meditation instructor and teaches mindfulness meditation classes to prison inmates in Wisconsin. He spends the remainder of his time reading, drinking coffee, and watching independent film. He spends his summers in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains doing as little as possible. For more, check out his website and Facebook.
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1 Heart it! Paul Gregory 52
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