Diabetes doesn’t hurt. That’s one of the biggest problems we have in taking this insidious disease seriously.
But when we don’t manage our diabetes, some of its complications can be painful. And about 40 percent of us have acute or chronic pain. That’s the bad news.
This bad news comes to us in a new study of more than 13,000 adults with type 2 diabetes in the Kaiser Permanente, Northern California system. About 42 percent of them reported that they had acute pain and about 40 percent said their pain was chronic. The most common complication they mentioned was fatigue, about 25 percent, followed by neuropathy, about 24 percent.
The findings, “Symptom Burden of Adults with Type 2 Diabetes Across the Disease Course: Diabetes & Aging Study,” will appear in the Journal of General Internal Medicine and is now available online. The lead author is Rebecca L. Sudore, M.D., and her assistant sent me a copy of the full-text.
The neuropathy numbers can even be higher. Many people who have neuropathy don’t know it. Neuropathy is particularly insidious because often the first symptoms are numbness. When our feet are numb we don’t feel a cut, and that can lead to a serious ulcer. Pain follows.
“About 60 to 70 percent of people with diabetes have some form of neuropathy,” according to the U.S. government’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “The highest rates of neuropathy are among people who have had diabetes for at least 25 years. Diabetic neuropathies also appear to be more common in people who have problems controlling their blood glucose, also called blood sugar, as well as those with high levels of blood fat and blood pressure and those who are overweight.”
The good news can be that we don’t have to suffer from our pain. I know that from my personal experience and from other studies.
Four years ago I suffered a lot of pain from terrible headaches. I tried everything to cure them, and eventually they faded away. One of the things that I tried came out of a meditation group where I sit and listen.
In one meeting we broke up into small discussion groups and I happened to mention my headaches. One of the other people in this group mentioned that for years she had had terrible migraine headaches and that she was able to control them by working with meditations that Shinzen Young taught in his book and CD “Break Through Pain.” I immediate bought it, put some of those techniques to work, and benefited from it, while at the same time deepening my meditation practice.
Shinzen taught me that we don’t have to suffer from pain. Suffering, he explains in a synopsis of his teaching how we can break through pain, is a function of pain and the degree to which the pain is being resisted.
Now, we have confirmation of this good news. A small study of 15 volunteers published last year in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that just a little over an hour of meditation can “dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” according to Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The full-text of the study, “Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation,” is online.
“We found a big effect — about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness, Dr. Zeidan continued. “Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.”
You have probably taken pain relievers. As Dr. Zeidan says, they will help some. But like all drugs, they have side effects. The only side effect of using meditation for pain relief that I know of is greater happiness.
HealthCentral published an earlier version of this article.