The study looks at the effectiveness of a technique called mindfulness mediation for the reduction of chronic pain in various conditions ranging from arthritis to fibromyalgia. Mindfulness meditation aims at paying close attention to the moment, at accepting thoughts and sensations for what they are, without judging them and without reacting to them. It takes practice, and commitment, but an increasing number of people swear by it for improving their quality of life.
The researchers studied over 100 participants with chronic pain before and after an 8-week regimen of mindfulness meditation, performed both in weekly classes and at home. The outcome survey assessed a number of parameters such as body pain, vitality and fatigue, limitations due to physical health problems (try washing your hair when both your shoulders feel broken), and so on.
Overall, mindfulness meditation lead to a significant improvement of all the parameters studied. Not only that, it lead to clinically relevant changes in measures like bodily pain and general health perception. Interestingly, when you divide the group by specific health condition, some conditions show a much greater improvement than others. For example, arthritis and back/neck pain sufferers benefited from meditation more than headache/migraine sufferers.
So how does mindfulness meditation work? Because we are just beginning to understand the impact of meditation in the brain, we can only take educated guesses. It is possible that meditation can regulate sensory and affective aspects of pain itself (i.e. you actually hurt less). It is also possible that meditation acts to reduce distressing thoughts that come with pain and usually amplify the pain feeling (i.e. you still hurt, but you stress out about it less, so the pain doesn’t seem as bad). It may also be a combination of both (isn’t it always?).
The study is very convincing, but it’s not perfect. Without a proper control group (i.e. a cohort of people who have chronic pain but don’t meditate), it’s not possible to rule out that everyone just had a spontaneous improvement in their pain. However, given that most participants had been experiencing pain for several years, this seems unlikely. In addition, the sample sizes for individual condition groups were pretty small (27 to 53 individuals per group), which limits statistical power. Finally, the participants in the study were not very heterogeneous, being mostly well-educated Caucasian women, so who knows if this applies to everyone.
Mindfulness meditation is obviously no miracle cure for chronic pain, but it sure seems like it can help people cope with the pain. In my humble opinion, it can only be a good thing to take some time to breathe correctly and relax. It would be extra nice if the researchers also recommended daily naps, though.
Reference: Mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. (2010) Rosenzweig S, Greeson JM, Reibel DK, Green JS, Jasser SA, Beasley D. J Psychosom Res. 68(1):29-36.