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Pain, Pain, Float Away

It's in Your Head

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 9, 2001 -- Pick up a raisin. Look at it. Really look at it -- like you've never seen a raisin before. Roll it between your fingers. What do you notice about its texture, its color? Hold the raisin to your ear. Squish it a bit. Does it make a sound? Bring it to your lips. Take note of any stray thoughts you might have, but always come back to the raisin. Place it on your tongue. When you finally swallow it, appreciate the fullness of its flavor. Now imagine that your body is exactly one raisin heavier.

Sound like an odd exercise? Then consider this: For thousands of people who suffer from chronic pain, spending quiet time with a raisin has proven to be the first step to learning how to cope with their pain.

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The raisin exercise serves as an entree to meditation -- an approach that is gaining popularity among people in pain. In 1997, Americans made more than 100 million visits to alternative practitioners for relaxation therapies such as meditation, according to a study by David Eisenberg, MD. That study is available in the Nov. 11, 1998, issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association. Just how meditation relieves pain is not entirely clear, though researchers are beginning to enumerate and examine potential mechanisms. What is clear is that for millions seeking treatment for headaches, arthritis, and many other conditions, meditation seems to work.

Mind Controls Body

"It changed my life," says Imogene Benson, who suffers from the chronic, painful condition called fibromyalgia. Benson signed up for the stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester after a bad fall left her with neck and back injuries, too. "I've learned to relax and be more in control of my body, instead of having my body controlling me," she says.

An avid runner before the accident, Benson says that the pain kept her from working for months at a time and made climbing even a short flight of stairs a nightmare. Meditation has given her a sense of inner peace, she says, and has improved her physical condition as well. "I have less pain, my muscles are more relaxed, and I have much better mobility," she says.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of individuals have sought help at the U. Mass. Stress Reduction Clinic, which has pioneered methods for teaching meditation techniques to people with pain. Their symptoms vary -- from headaches and back pain to anxiety and eczema -- but their stories are remarkably similar.

"Most of the people we see have had long experiences with pain clinics, doctors, and medications," says Elana Rosenbaum, a social worker at the clinic. "But nothing has relieved their suffering."

Before coming to the clinic, Benson tried medication, physical therapy, and a device that electrically stimulates nerves to reduce pain: none offered more than temporary relief.

And then she tried meditation. "It's just wonderful. No matter how stressed you feel before, afterward you feel relaxed, calm, and filled with energy," says Benson. And meditation doesn't always require a mantra or mystical music. For Benson, the key thing is finding a quiet place to focus for 30 minutes.

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