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
"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
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."