5 Tips To Help Alleviate Soreness During Meditation

Back pain and other discomfort-causing sensations are common during meditation mostly because cross-legged meditation requires great strength to maintain perfect posture. When people don’t have this strength they can experience soreness, especially during long meditation sessions. Once practitioners, develop this strength, through, mediation becomes much more comfortable. This article explores how to alleviate pain during meditation and includes a playlist with guided meditations that help to sit through discomfort and pain.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
pain meditation
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

If you experience soreness when you meditate, you’re definitely not the only one. Backaches, numbness and joint pain plague most meditators, and while great meditators are often able to observe their pain objectively, it takes everyday people years to reach this point of pain acceptance. Until you’re a meditation master, it helps to understand why you’re experiencing pain during meditation, and what you can do to improve it.

Understanding The Pain During Meditation

Firstly, how does pain work?

Pain is sensed by ‘pain detectors’ known as nociceptors. When you touch something hot or sharp, nociceptors send electrical signals (inputs) to the spinal cord. The spinal cord then transmits them via other neurons to the brain, particularly the cortex. The cortex translates this input into the perception of pain. This is known as the ascending pathway. But what happens then?

You know as soon as you start to feel pain during meditation you want to change position, stretch or move. You want to avoid the sensation, and this is due to the descending pain pathway. The anterior cortex creates an emotional response to the pain, like fear or worry. The brain sends signals down the spinal cord, triggering endorphins and our body’s pain killers to help inhibit ascending pain signals.

Pain is a complex and curiously subjective experience. How we experience pain depends on the brain of the person experiencing it. In the past decade, pain was treated as the fifth vital sign, joining classic objective vital signs temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate. Due to pain’s subjective nature though, your pain is not the same as your neighbor’s pain, even though you may be have the same injury or irritation. Scientists now know that pain isn’t the same for everyone, even if you’re all sitting in the same position for meditation.

Read more: It is important to understand the difference between discomfort and pain. Learn about the role of discomfort in yoga and meditation practice for spiritual and personal growth.

5 Powerful Tips To Improve Meditation Soreness

In the following, we’ll look at five common sensations during meditation that cause practitioners to feel discomfort or pain and how to find relief: lower back pain, knee pain, middle back pain, ankle pain and neck pain.

1. Low Back Pain

Low back pain is very common during meditation, as it’s exceedingly common in the general population. Low back pain is known as a global burden, with over 80% of Americans experiencing back pain at some point in their lives. It’s so common, back pain is the second leading cause of time off work after the common cold. 

Sadly too, low back pain can often become chronic due to poor understanding of pain mechanics, poor explanations by health professionals and a number of factors making certain people more susceptible to developing chronic pain. In fact, a study examining trends in spinal pain found:

  • 15-20 percent of the US population develop protracted back pain
  • 2-8 percent have chronic back pain (pain that lasts more than 3 months)
  • 3-4 percent of the US population is temporarily disabled due to back pain
  • 1 percent of the working-age population is disabled completely and permanently as a result of low back pain.

So, you can see low back (lumbar) pain is incredibly common, meaning you’re sure to experience it at some point during your meditations.

Tip for finding relief from low back pain during meditation: The best way to deal with soreness in the lumbar spine is to try either flexed or extended postures, and choose the one that feels the best. You may need to alternate though. What you feel one day may change the next. 

If you have a slight swayback posture during the day and get sore at your desk, you may be overloading your zygapophyseal joints, which means you may feel bringing your knees to chest works best. If this doesn’t work, try sitting against a wall with a pillow underneath your knees.

On the other hand, if you usually sit in a flexed lumbar position (with a rounded lower back) you may feel that meditation in an extended posture is best. This means lying flat on your back or sitting with a pillow in your lower back against a wall. If your pain is very minimal, try sitting on a yoga block and rolling the pelvis forward to create a gentle sway back in your seated meditation posture.

2. Knee Pain

Many people experience knee pain during seated meditation, particularly when sitting in a cross-legged or lotus position. This is usually because the joint isn’t often flexed in this position for long periods in everyday life.

Knee pain during meditation is the pain that makes people the most anxious. As we know from the descending pathway above, adding fear into the perception of pain can really change the way we experience it. Some thoughts that may enter your head may be: What if I’m cutting off the blood supply to my legs? What if my knee pain is because I have bad arthritis?

As soon as you feel these statements taking hold of your imagination, the pain often grows and is harder to shake. 

To combat knee pain during meditation, try to

  1. Remember soreness during meditation isn’t usually an indication of anything serious within the body, it’s just your body acknowledging an unfamiliar posture. 
  2. If the soreness grows, try sitting with one leg straight, and the other knee bent with the foot resting on the inner thigh. Then swap legs when the bent knee gets too sore.
  3. If your knee soreness worsens and becomes too distracting during your meditation, try sitting against a wall with your legs out straight. A foam roller or pillow underneath your knees can also help relieve knee joint soreness.

3. Middle Back Pain

Pain between the shoulder blades is very common during meditation. Sitting unsupported takes a lot of strength, and strength takes at least six weeks to build. If you’re new to seated meditation in a cross-legged or lotus position, you’ll probably find yourself slumping after a few minutes. Slumping or slouching is also known as a kyphotic posture, causing rounded shoulders as well as a rounded middle back. Even with your best intentions, without the strength to hold your torso upright, you won’t be able to sit up straight to meditate once your torso muscles become fatigued.

For relief from middle back pain during longer meditations, try: Lying down. This will prevent your middle back soreness from distracting you for longer meditation sessions. 

For relief from middle back pain during shorter meditations, try: Building your strength by sitting up tall and drawing your shoulders open as though you’re widening your collar bones. Sometimes this is easiest when your pelvis is slightly lifted off the ground, such as when sitting on a yoga block or pillow.

Read more: Vidyamala Burch explains five reasons why mindfulness is helpful for living well with pain as well as a collection of tips, guided meditations for pain management and memorable slogans to help us practice.

4. Ankle Pain

Your ankles can become sore when sitting cross-legged for long periods. Due to the anatomy of the ankle joint, it moves in every direction: It can flex, extend and rotate. Thanks to this handy anatomy, when you experience ankle soreness, you can move the joint just slightly and usually achieve relief.

How to relieve ankle soreness during meditation: If sitting cross-legged becomes too painful, take a moment to point and flex your feet, and roll your ankles in circles. You should find you’re able to return to your cross-legged position without too much pain.

5. Neck Pain

When most people sit for long periods, they end up in a chin-poking posture, placing increased force on the upper two cervical vertebrae, and at the cervicothoracic junction where the neck meets the middle back. Not only can this lead to headaches, but it can also cause soreness that can radiate into the jaw and down into the middle back. 

Much like combatting middle back pain, the ability to hold the neck in a neutral or ‘non-poked’ posture takes strength. This involves tiny stabilizing muscles called deep neck flexors, as well as other muscle groups. Building strength takes at least six weeks, but until you’ve built up the strength there are a few things you can try.

Tips for managing neck pain during meditation:

  1. If you notice your neck starting to get sore during cross-legged meditation, try drawing your chin back over your collar bone; almost like you’re making a double chin. You may feel silly, but it can take the strain off the upper vertebrae and ease the aching and even ease headache.
  2. If your neck pain continues, try sitting against a wall with a pillow in your lower back and your head supported against the wall. If this doesn’t help, try lying down with your head on the ground, with a slight nod in your chin to prevent excessive extension through the neck. 

“Whenever we sit (in meditation) we are going to experience some level of discomfort, whether it’s a tingling in our legs when they fall asleep or perhaps it’s an old aching pain. It could be an itch you’d like to scratch.” Following meditation instructor Mel A. James’ words, you might want to work with your feelings of discomfort and pain with the help of these guided meditations:

  1. Sitting Through Discomfort Mel A. James 11:25
  2. Working with Difficult Bodily Sensations Hugh Byrne 15:08
  3. Breathing Through Pain And Discomfort Jamie Krasman 9:34
  4. Sit With Your Discomfort Jelena Fu 10:10
  5. Pain and Discomfort Meditation Joelle Anderson 20:00
  6. Gratitude Practice For Discomfort And Difficulty Dr. Candice Creasman 10:02
  7. Finding A Way Through Physical And Emotional Discomfort Anne Marie Wallen 23:02
  8. Accepting Emotional Discomfort Dr. Julien Lacaille (MindSpace) 16:13
  9. Beyond Pain Mary Maddux 15:46
  10. Making Peace With Physical Discomfort Andrea Zimmering 08:05
  11. From Pain to Peace Bethany Auriel-Hagan 15:36
  12. Journey Through Pain Short Version Andy Hobson 13:51
  13. Resting With Discomfort Lisa Meuser 10:09
  14. Sitting With Discomfort A. M. Wegner 9:59
  15. Learning To Sit With Discomfort Kate Heironymus 9:55
  16. Meditation for Comfort & Ease in the Body Jennifer Meek 10:00

Aches and pains are very common during meditation, and after many years you may be able to maintain your meditation without moving to alleviate the soreness. Until you become a meditation master, though, consider your posture during meditation and ease soreness with the easy tips above.

Building strength to maintain meditation posture takes time, but you’ll get there. If you notice your pain worsens or feels different from any pain you’ve had before, tell your health professional.

Meditation. Free.