Friday, July 29, 2011

Integrative Way: Meditation can relieve pain, stress

(The Seattle Times)
By Drs. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden
McClatchy Newspapers

Meditation has become increasingly popular, and also increasingly available, to the average consumer in the past five to 10 years.

While anyone who practices meditation on a regular basis can attest to its positive benefits — reduced stress and anxiety — going "om" may also lessen physical pain and provide other benefits.

How and why meditation is so effective in this way has been somewhat of a mystery in the past, but now thanks to modern technology, scientists are beginning to discover the brain changes that occur during meditation and that contribute to its benefit.

In fact, there's a new field of inquiry known as contemplative neuroscience, which is the study of how the brain physically changes when people meditate. This area of science has exploded in the past 10 years, especially with the development of functional MRI scans that allow scientists to literally see how brain structure and function change in response to meditation and other interventions.

Researchers have found that people who meditate on a regular basis actually develop thicker brains — they increase the connections between their brain cells, and they also increase the network of blood vessels in the brain, especially in those areas that help us to focus and pay attention, as well as areas of the brain involved with self-awareness and empathy.

Meditation can also lead to a reduction in the area of the brain that is associated with pain and stress. In other words, we can literally change our brain by what we focus on. And you don't have to be an expert at this in order to benefit.

This month in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina published a paper showing that meditation reduced pain intensity in a group of adults with no previous meditation experience.

In this study, 15 healthy adults were taught to meditate in four 20-minute classes. Prior to and at the end of the study, the participants underwent a special kind of MRI that measures activity in the part of the brain responsible for the perception of pain.

While they were getting the scans done, a device that produces painful heat was placed on each participant's leg for five minutes.

At the end of the study, all participants noted a reduction in their pain ratings, some by as much as 93 percent — this is more than the pain reduction seen with narcotic and other pain relieving drugs.

The MRI scans also changed at the end of the study — meditation reduced activity in the part of the brain that perceives painful stimuli, and it also increased activation of areas that reduce the sensation of pain.

Another recent study done at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that participation in an eight-week mindfulness meditation training program also produced measurable changes in the areas of the brain associated with empathy, stress, memory and learning. Participants in this study meditated an average of 27 minutes per day over eight weeks and reported significant reductions in stress at the end of the study.

MRI brain scans done at the end of the study showed an increased size in areas of the brain associated with compassion, self-awareness, memory and learning, as well as a concomitant reduction in the part of the brain associated with stress and anxiety.

None of these changes were seen in the control group that did not receive the meditation training. The study used the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. It is now widely taught all over the world.

If you have chronic pain, anxiety, or stress in your life, cultivating a daily meditation practice is a great way to enhance your well- being, and it might also reduce your need for medication. If you are new to meditation, Kabat-Zinn's program is a great way to introduce yourself to this work.