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The Zen Way to Pain Relief

Meditation technique may help keep discomfort at bay, study finds

THURSDAY, Jan. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Zen meditation appears to reduce sensitivity to moderate pain when practiced by well-trained individuals, Canadian researchers report.

"Previous studies had already shown that teaching patients with chronic pain to meditate seemed to help them, but no one had examined how these effects might come about," said study author Joshua A. Grant, a researcher in the department of physiology at the University of Montreal. "We reasoned that the best approach would be to study healthy people with a lot of meditation training already under their belts, because effects would presumably be strongest in them."

"The first finding then is that the meditators are much less sensitive to heat pain," noted Grant. "We [also] found that this pain reduction in meditators was related to how many lifetime hours of practice they had accumulated, with more pain reduction in the more senior practitioners."

Throughout the experiments, the researchers also found that meditators seem to breath much more slowly than non-meditators -- providing some of the first hard proof that the cardio-respiratory system could be the underlying mechanism by which meditation promotes pain control.

Grant and his University of Montreal co-author, Dr. Pierre Rainville, report the findings in the January issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the practice of meditation refers to a wide range of techniques that harness a controlled focus on objects, words, breath, or posture to invoke relaxation, calmness, psychological balance, overall wellness, and/or disease control.

Regardless of the approach, NCCAM highlights four attributes that are common to most forms of stand-alone meditation or meditation performed in conjunction with other disciplines such as yoga, tai chi, or qi gong: finding a quiet space; engaging in a comfortable (but specifically prescribed) posture; focusing; and maintaining an "open attitude" towards the flow of thought and distractions.

Grant and Rainville's study focused on the effects of Zen meditation. In essence, this technique is described as a "mindfulness-based practice" with historic roots in Buddhism, which calls for directing one's attention to one's inner as well as outer environment.

Thirteen Zen meditators, all of whom had already logged more than 1,000 hours of practice with the technique, were enrolled in the study. Between the spring and winter of 2006 the authors compared the practitioners' reactions to moderate pain to that of 13 men and women of similar age with no meditation or yoga background.

Using high-tech thermal probes, the researchers exposed the left calf area of each participant to a series of painful and non-painful heated "stimulations" ranging from 37º C (neutral) to 43º C (warm and non-painful) to a maximum of 53º C (hot and moderately painful).

During each session, participants were either instructed to keep their eyes closed and not fall asleep; to shut their eyes and focus their attention on the left leg stimulation; or to close their eyes, focus on the left leg, and try not to judge the stimulation but instead merely observe the sensation moment-to-moment.

Based on self-reported pain levels, Grant and Rainville found that the last concentration exercise, designed to simulate meditation "mindfulness," helped the meditators experience less pain, but had no impact on non-meditators.

Non-meditators were also not helped when they were told to focus on the leg stimulation. In fact, both the intensity of their pain and pain "unpleasantness" went up by 15 percent and 21 percent, respectively. In contrast, meditators given the same instruction experienced no increase on either score.

"I think this study gives credibility to the stories often heard about certain individuals sitting through painful medical or dental procedures, for example, without anesthetic, relying on hypnosis or highly focused concentration to get them through the pain," Grant said. "I'm not suggesting that if you practice Zen meditation you will never need a painkiller. But slowly, through studies like this and those on hypnosis, we're understanding that we have perhaps a lot more control over aspects of our experience than we previously believed. Having this attitude of optimism is important, both to cultivate one's own potential and to generate interest and support in understanding it scientifically."

Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, described the study as "tremendously important" and as "another brick in the foundation" supporting mind-body approaches to pain control.

"Stress is responsible for upwards of 60 to 90 percent of visits to doctors," said Benson, who is also associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "So, to point to meditation as a means to evoke a relaxation response that could enable the mind to control pain isn't that far of a leap."

He noted that prior studies have suggested that various meditative techniques help release pain-relieving endorphins. "So this study is a nice addition to already existing literature," Benson said. "And it suggests that what we have here is a relatively effective inexpensive approach that could help treat conditions that are being poorly treated by drugs and surgeries."

More information

There's more on the health benefits of meditation at the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

SOURCES: Joshua A. Grant, BSc, researcher, department of physiology, University of Montreal; Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus, Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Mass.; January 2009 Psychosomatic Medicine

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