Pain, Pain, Float Away
It's in Your Head
Mind Controls Body continued...
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.
Scientists Weigh In
According to one early study by Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic, 65% of the patients who spent 10 weeks in his program reported that their pain was reduced by at least one-third. (The study was published in the April 1982 issue of General Hospital Psychiatry.) Their mood improves and they experience significantly fewer overall symptoms, says Shreyas Patel, MD, a neurologist who trained with Kabat-Zinn before joining the Marino Center for Progressive Health in Cambridge, Mass. Indeed, an independent technology assessment panel, convened in 1995 by the National Institutes of Health, confirmed that behavioral approaches -- including relaxation techniques and hypnosis -- can be quite effective for chronic pain.
But how might meditation work to relieve pain? First off, the relaxation that's at the heart of meditation relieves the muscle tension that most certainly contributes to pain, says Howard Fields, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, who sat on the NIH technology assessment panel. And the anxiety involved in anticipating pain -- or thinking it will never leave -- causes additional muscle tightening, says Patel. Relieving that anxiety is another way meditation can help people cope with physical sensations.
In addition, meditation most likely alters a person's emotional response to pain. Remember, pain is more than just a physical sensation -- it is an experience steeped in emotion. "I'm still in constant pain," says Benson. "But meditation makes the pain more bearable. It's taught me how to live with it and to find ways to better manage it."