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Meditation: Can It Help Reduce Your Pain? by Dr. Gary Kaplan | Health

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Meditation: Can It Help Reduce Your Pain? by Dr. Gary Kaplan
Meditation: Can It Help Reduce Your Pain? by Dr. Gary Kaplan

Meditation, which can be practiced in many different forms, has been used for thousands of years to benefit the mind, body and soul. Now there is a growing body of medical research proving that meditation not only modifies brain function, it can actually change the way we experience physical pain.

A recent 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."

These results are exciting, and they confirm what we have seen clinically in our own patients at the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine. In fact, in the mid-1990's, I had the opportunity to serve on an NIH Consensus Panel that affirmed the effectiveness of relaxation and behavioral approaches in the treatment of chronic pain and insomnia. Shortly thereafter, we instituted a meditation training program for our own patients.

In the meantime, medical research has demonstrated that many difficult to treat chronic pain conditions, such fibromyalgia syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, celiac disease, 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 January 2011.

How to Meditate: A Guide to Formal Sitting Practice, by Tara Brach, PhD, 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 recent 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 with chronic pain, depression, and anxiety disorders.

• Other studies have shown that regular meditation helps improve immune function and reduce individuals' feelings of anxiety and fear and enhance 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 wellbeing by providing a method of letting go of fearful thoughts and decreasing emotional reactivity.

About Gary Kaplan, D.O.:
Dr. Kaplan founded the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine in 1985. He serves as the Center's Medical Director and as a Clinical Associate Professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, and he has served as a consultant at the National Institutes of Medicine (NIH), including on the NIH Consensus Panel that authored a paper on the Treatment of Chronic Pain & Insomnia with Relaxation Techniques.