Mindfulness in Physical Therapy

Originally Published on November 8, 2017

Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention to the present moment or being present in this moment, on what you are doing right now, not ruminating on the past and not worrying about the future, but having a calm, deep awareness of right now. This may sound like a very simple thing, but if you sit and try, you will quickly notice that the mind has a tendency to wander away. It wanders to some task you forgot to do yesterday. It wanders to unpaid bills and everything else you have to do today. And it can perhaps start to become focused on some pain in your body. And this is where we come to the point of this post. Can mindfulness help us ease pain, improve our physical selves and help in physical therapy?

Most patients who come into our clinic are dealing with some type of injury, and more often than not, are in pain as well. While the exact mechanisms of pain are too complex to fully get into here, we can discuss how mindfulness might be helpful in some cases.

Pain, anywhere in the body, has a tendency to cause an increase in muscle tension and guarding. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to cause even more pain. Pain leads to tension, which disrupts normal blood flow, which means less oxygen in the tissue, which means more inflammation, which means more pain, which means more tension. On and on this pain cycle can go, especially when we try to ignore the pain and continuing doing our work, chores, recreation, etc.

Mindfulness would suggest that at this point perhaps we stop and lie down or sit:

  • Find a comfortable position and then breathe.
  • Don’t think too hard.
  • Concentrate on the breath coming in and slowly going back out.
  • Keep your mind on your breath-not on the pain, not on what you think you “should” be doing, not on what “could be wrong”.
  • Concentrate on your breathing.
  • Let your body relax. As you continue breathing, scan your body for any areas of tension, starting at your head and slowly working your way down to your feet.
  • Stop at any areas of particular pain and tension and breathe into them, allowing your body to fully relax, releasing the tension and releasing the pain.

Often when we have an injury we get caught up in worry. What is wrong? Is it serious? What about that trip I planned? Stress and anxiety do not help to heal and decrease pain, in fact, they make it worse. The worst thing we can do is ruminate and stress about our pain and perceived situation. When we fear pain, when we anticipate pain, we inevitably make things worse.

The body will heal itself if given proper time and opportunity. Opportunity means stopping the activities that are worsening our pain, allowing our bodies to be in proper alignment and position and giving our body rest, nutrition and relaxation. Don’t ignore your pain and push through-the pain will win every time. If you just sit and do nothing but stress and worry, the pain and tension will worsen. You can’t heal your body if you don’t pay attention to it. Breathe, allow your body to relax, and listen to what it is telling you.

Try mindfulness at your desk at work or while driving. Set a timer for every 30 minutes or so-a small chime would be ideal. When it chimes, take a breath, adjust your posture, relax your shoulders, and move on.

Try mindfulness with your exercise program. Before any exercise, take a breath, adjust your posture, ground your feet, and go. When you use insight and intent, you will get more out of every repetition.

Try mindfulness before going to sleep. Don’t carry all the tensions of your day to bed with you. Breath and let the tension go.

The take home message is: Mindfulness takes practice, you won’t change habits overnight. You can sneak a little mindfulness into any activity to improve your awareness and concentration, whether it be at work, in PT or with your family and loved ones. And lastly… Breathe!

We are here to help. If you feel you need professional help to improve your alignment, posture and help prevent further or future injury please don’t hesitate to contact us (925) 284-6150.

Written by Tim Appleford, Clinic Manager at Bay Area Physical Therapy & Physical Therapist at Lafayette Physical Therapy, Inc.

Arranged and Edited by Zack Krumland, BSBA, PR & Marketing Coordinator

References: Looking at Mindfulness by Christophe Andre; How to Relax by Thich Nhat Hanh; Step By Step, Basic Buddhist Meditations by Wangchen; Explain Pain by Butler & Moseley.

This article is intended as general health information and is not intended to provide individual specific medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or any other individual. Please consult your doctor or a medical professional before starting or changing a health, fitness, or nutrition program.

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