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Pain, Pain, Float Away

It's in Your Head

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."

Altering Emotions and Sensations

This makes sense, physiologically speaking, because the sensations and the emotions associated with pain are processed by different parts of the brain, says Catherine Bushnell, PhD, of McGill University. So relaxation techniques, including meditation and hypnosis, might allow people to tolerate pain they would ordinarily describe as unbearable. In her studies of hypnosis, Bushnell has found that people can be taught to reinterpret painful sensations, regarding them as "warm and pleasant" rather than "burning and unpleasant."

"So it's not just that people are being trained to ignore pain" when hypnotized or meditating, says Bushnell. She's concluded that relaxation techniques can alter the way the brain responds to a painful sensation and the way a person feels about it.

Further, meditation also may change the neural pathways that control the physical sensation of pain. Perhaps it works like morphine, says Bushnell, dampening pain by stimulating the inhibitory nerves that extend from the brain to the spinal cord, where they block the sensation of pain.

A raisin might not always be a substitute for morphine, but it appears that meditation can help people control their response to pain -- and their outlook on life. "The raisin exercise makes you aware of sights, sounds, scents, and tastes," says Benson. "Now I relax, slow down, and take time to appreciate things around me -- a bird or a cricket, the wind in the trees. Meditation makes my life a little more peaceful. It's made me a better me."

 

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