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Can meditation really ease pain? Brain imagery confirms it

These magnetic resonance images from a Wake Forest University study published in the journal Neuroscience in April 2011 show how meditating reduced pain unpleasantness by 57 percent and pain intensity ratings by 40 percent when compared to rest. The yellow areas show activity corresponding to pain sensation.
Published Mar. 10, 2012


Tough guy Mike Gluchowski balked at even the thought of meditation.


But as he looked at his dozen prescription medications for his chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by a career in law enforcement in New York City, the New Port Richey resident was willing to try something new.


Nearly three months later, he says he's free from the pain of cervical spine stenosis and arthritis in his knees and hips for six to eight hours after his daily, hourlong Transcendental Meditation practice.


Instead of taking painkillers, Gluchowski, 54, listens to his inner voice.


"I don't know how or why it works — I don't want to know or care," Gluchowski says. "The results I've had have been totally incredible. It makes my day goes so much easier to get up and not have to worry about getting up and walking to the kitchen and getting a cup of coffee."


Gluchowski discovered TM through Operation Warrior Wellness, a nonprofit group that aims to teach the techniques to veterans, military personnel and those suffering from PTSD.


Science has just begun to quantify the benefits of an ancient art that practitioners have touted for thousands of years.


Researchers think meditation affects the autonomic nervous system, which regulates functions such as heartbeat, breathing and digestion. Neuroscientists have begun to home in on how meditation affects the brain's reaction to pain, and why many meditators say that what was once unbearable is now tolerable or even barely noticeable.


Meditation also is widely used to alleviate stress and the many health implications that come with it, from insomnia to heart disease. It's not the answer for everyone, but its fans say it can be astonishingly effective, without the side effects of pills or alcohol. At the least, meditation might be a way to decrease dependence on drugs, some say.


"A majority of the population is taking some kind of substance to lower their level of stress or pain," said Gluchowski's TM teacher, Jim Vuille, who hasn't missed a day of meditation in 40 years. "It's an epidemic in our society — whether people use illegal or legal substances — to try and feel better, to try and dull the negative discomfort.''


There are many ways to meditate. Here is a look at some of the most popular methods — TM, mindfulness meditation and Integrative Restoration — and what practitioners and science have to say about their effectiveness for pain relief:


Transcendental Meditation


The Beatles' trip to India in the 1960s to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi made Transcendental Meditation, the form of mantra meditation he originated, famous around the world. The discipline has a long line of celebrity devotees, including Oprah Winfrey, film director David Lynch and Dr. Mehmet Oz. Practitioners use a word, sound or phrase repeated silently (a mantra) to achieve a state of relaxed awareness.


Studies of TM have yielded quantifiable results for pain reduction.


In a 2006 pilot study, researchers at the University of California-Irvine found that the brains of long-term practitioners of TM showed up to 50 percent less reaction to pain in MRI images than did people in a nonmeditating control group.


After the control group practiced the technique for five months, its response to pain dropped up to 50 percent.


Mindfulness-based meditation


Rooted in Buddhist traditions, mindfulness meditation focuses on what is being experienced — such as one's own breath — with the practitioner learning to observe thoughts and feelings as they come and go without reaction or judgment.


The latest research illustrates how a mindfulness-based practice reduces pain by aiding the senses in processing information about what's happening in the body while decreasing how much thinking is involved, according to a Harvard University study published in the December edition of the journal Cerebral Cortex.


The study showed that 22 percent of meditation practitioners felt their pain was less unpleasant when they meditated. The findings intrigue scientists because they show how two different brain mechanisms work together to change a person's perception of pain, said lead author Tim Gard.


"The really exciting part of our study is that we show that pain modulation through mindfulness has very different neural correlates than other forms of pain modulation," he said.


Last April, Wake Forest University used MRIs of subjects' brains to measure activity levels. They found that meditators cut their pain levels by 57 percent. The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that just four sessions of 20 minutes can alter pain perception.


Dr. Alex Lerner, 61, isn't surprised.


With two back surgeries for herniated discs caused by his labor-intensive work as an obstetrician, Lerner, of Tampa, was always in pain.


Prolonged steroid treatments for his back pain caused four retinal detachments and after he became blind in his right eye, he retired.


As he faced the possibility of a third back surgery in 2006, he took a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, based on the work of University of Massachusetts neuroscientist Jon Kabat-Zinn.


The course gave Lerner confidence that he could change his own view toward pain, and lessen his experience of it.


"When you're in pain — and I was in pain — you want to get away from it," Lerner says.


Meditation doesn't affect the back condition that is causing him pain, but it does change how his brain perceives it, he says.


"This is something that's happening in my body but it's being organized in my head," he says.


Integrative Restoration


Integrative Restoration, also called iRest or Yoga Nidra, is a guided meditation that uses several common meditation techniques, such as breath awareness, body scanning, visualization and positive reinforcement, to achieve a state of deep relaxation.


IRest alleviates post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers returned from combat, according to a recent study done at Walter Reed Army Medical Center by the Integrative Restoration Institute. The importance of nondrug pain relief was highlighted again this week with the release of a government study showing that veterans with PTSD and physical injuries who are prescribed powerful opioid painkillers are at slightly more risk of suicide or overdosing on drugs and alcohol.


Executive director Richard Miller says his organization is compiling data from the Walter Reed study on the effect of Yoga Nidra on chronic pain.


Miller hopes to investigate the specific areas of the brain iRest affects and build on the growing amount of research mapping meditation's effect on the brain.


"We can use the research to home in on what these interventions can actually do. We can then combine and enhance them, especially working with things like chronic pain," Miller says.


The U.S. military has endorsed its use in medical centers across the country.


Yogani Studios owner Annie Okerlin teaches yoga and meditation classes to injured veterans at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg each week.


"They are able to find a place of ease with the pain," Okerlin says. "The body wants to feel the positive; it doesn't want to feel upset. The body will choose the more positive and will create new neural pathways."


One of Okerlin's students, Joel Tavera, 24, initially was skeptical, but now he's a believer.


"My favorite is Yoga Nidra," the Tampa man said. "It's one of the best things I get to do."


A 2008 rocket blast in Iraq destroyed four fingers on Tavera's left hand, removed his right leg, caused brain trauma, burned more than 60 percent of his body and left him blind.


Tavera says iRest helps him with his anxiety, improves his quality of sleep and keeps him in tune with his body.


"Don't judge it for what it sounds like or the way it seems — it's not anything compared to the way it feels," Tavera says. "It's pretty freaking awesome."

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