Meditation, which can be practiced in many different forms, has been used for thousands of years to benefit the mind, body, and soul. Medical research proves that meditation not only modifies brain function but can also actually change the way we experience physical pain.
A study reported in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that patients who had received only a little more than 60 minutes of meditation training were able to dramatically reduce their experience of pain. Patients experienced a reduction in “pain intensity” of about 40 percent and a reduction in “pain unpleasantness” of 57 percent. According to the lead author of the study, Fadel Zeidan, “Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.”
The results confirm what we have seen clinically in our own patients at the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine. In fact, in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to serve on an NIH Consensus Panel that confirmed the effectiveness of relaxation and behavioral approaches in the treatment of chronic pain and insomnia. Meditation training has been part of the Clinic’s comprehensive treatment program for close to 30 years.
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In the meantime, medical research has demonstrated that many difficult to treat chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome, are mediated by central nervous system sensitization. It is only logical that meditation, which improves nervous system functioning, would help to alleviate chronic pain.
This is not to say that meditation is the entire answer; but can be a powerful part of an individual’s comprehensive treatment, along with physical exercise, dietary changes, nutritional supplementation, physical therapy, and appropriate medications.
The following are some practical resources on meditation and working with physical pain, offered by experienced meditators:
- Working with Pain, an audio talk by Jonathan Foust, founder of the Meditation Teacher Training Institute of Washington, recorded in January 2011.
- How to Meditate: A Guide to Formal Sitting Practice, by Tara Brach, Ph.D., Insight Meditation of Community of Washington, Website, February 26, 2011.
- Physical Pain and Meditation, An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Tricycle Magazine, 2002.
My hope is that these tools and the encouraging research results listed below will inspire you to commit to your own meditation practice.
- A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness meditation, over the short period of only 8 weeks, increased the amount of gray matter in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulation of one’s emotions, and self-awareness. This new study is very exciting because it suggests that meditation may be able to help heal the brains of people who suffer from chronic pain, depression, and anxiety disorders.
- Other studies have shown that regular meditation helps improve immune function and reduces individuals’ feelings of anxiety and fear and enhances their natural creativity and problem-solving abilities.
- Practicing mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase our empathy for others allowing for improved communication and relations with colleagues, family, and friends.
- Research indicates that a regular practice of meditation, by facilitating relaxation of the body and mind, also can help improve sleep, lessen the sensation of pain, and lower blood pressure.
- There is also clinical evidence that meditating can help improve depression and increase one’s overall sense of well-being by providing a method of letting go of fearful thoughts and decreasing emotional reactivity.
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