Meditating Away Pain
Using the mind to ease physical ills  

By Karen Hopkin
WebMD Medical News on MSN Health

Medically reviewed by Dr. Jeannie Brewer 

Pick up a raisin. Look at it  really look at it  like you've never seen a raisin before. Roll it between your fingers. What do you notice about its texture, its color, its heft? Hold the raisin to your ear. Squish it a bit. Does it make a sound? Bring it to your lips. Take note of any stray thoughts you might have, but always come back to the raisin itself. Place it on your tongue. When you finally swallow it, appreciate the fullness of its flavor. Now imagine that your body is exactly one raisin heavier. 

Sound like an odd exercise? Then consider this: For thousands of people who suffer from chronic pain, spending quiet time with a raisin has proven to be the first step to recovery  or at least to learning how to cope with their pain. 

The raisin contemplation serves as an entree to the practice of meditation, an approach that is gaining in popularity among people in pain. In 1997, Americans made more than 100 million visits to alternative practitioners for relaxation therapies such as meditation, according to a study by Dr. David Eisenberg, published in 1998 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Just how meditation relieves pain is not entirely clear, though researchers are beginning to enumerate and examine potential mechanisms. What is clear is that for millions seeking treatment for headaches, arthritis and many other conditions, meditation seems to work. 

Benefits for mind and body

"It changed my life," says Imogene Benson, who signed up for the stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester after a bad fall left her with neck and back injuries and who also suffers from a chronic, painful condition called fibromyalgia. "I've learned to relax and be more in control of my body, instead of having my body controlling me," she says. An avid runner before the accident, Benson says that the pain kept her from working for months at a time and made negotiating even a short flight of stairs a nightmare. Meditation has not only given her a sense of inner peace, she says, it has improved her physical condition as well. "I have less pain, my muscles are more relaxed, and I have much better mobility," she says. 

Over the past 20 years, thousands of individuals have sought help at the University of Massachusetts 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 muscles 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. Since graduating from the program nine months ago, Benson sets aside some time each day, wherever she is, to practice her techniques. Closing her eyes, she stretches and does a body scan, slowing her breathing and gradually moving her attention to each part of her body. Meditation doesn't always require a mantra or mystical music; for Benson, the key thing is finding a quiet place to focus for half an hour. 

Scientists weigh in 

According to one early study by Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic, 65 percent of the patients who spent 10 weeks in his program reported that their pain was reduced by one-third or more. (The study was published in the April 1982 issue of General Hospital Psychiatry.) Their mood improves and they experience significantly fewer overall symptoms, says Dr. Shreyas Patel, 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 (NIH), confirmed that behavioral approaches, including relaxation techniques and hypnosis, can be quite effective in the treatment of 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 Dr. Howard Fields, 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 may make people better able to 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, 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 may also 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."

Karen Hopkin, Ph.D., is a free-lance science writer and editor in Somerville, Mass. A biochemist, she is currently revising a popular undergraduate cell biology textbook. Her work has appeared in Scientific American and New Scientist.