I did a Google search for ‘meditation and pain management’ and got about 500,000 results. In itself this doesn’t really prove that meditation works but it shows a huge interest. A search for ‘magnet therapy for pain’ yielded over 130,000 results, even though magnet therapy has been almost completely discredited by scientific testing. A search on PUB MED, a scientific database, yielded 1943 citations on meditation and 201 clinical trials since the year 2000. A clinical trial is a way of testing a treatment, much like drug testing (see TESTING). Unlike magnet therapy, meditation has consistently been shown to be effective in pain management when tested. (May I suggest you do your own Pub Med search on magnets for pain if you are a believer in this treatment?) At this stage of our understanding, the evidence for the usefulness of meditation in pain management is more than convincing.

Think for a moment what this means. Meditation is a conscious act. Most things we think of as meditation involve being physically still and relaxed while doing something with the mind that involves concentration. Even so-called forms of moving meditation require a particular state of mind and body. The fact that meditation can help pain means that the mind or consciousness itself plays an important role in treating pain. (For more, see the series WHAT IS PAIN?)

Evidence showing that conscious mental effort can influence the workings of the body is relatively recent. Studies of biofeedback, mental rehearsal of physical actions and functional MRI scanning of brain microcirculation have repeatedly shown that thoughts, especially when they are focused, can have remarkable physical effects. Slowing the heart and increasing muscular strength are but two examples.

Before the advent of scientific testing, human beings believed in the power of the mind to not just help heal the body but also to provide practitioners with special abilities. Different forms of meditative practice have long been attached to particular belief systems (e.g. Buddhism, Yogic training) each with its claims and promises. While many of the claims have not been proven, research has demonstrated that there is a basis for at least some of them, such as Tibetan Buddhist training to withstand cold temperatures and the Indian Fakir method of slowing metabolism.

Unfortunately, none of this means that we can simply meditate our pain away. Would that it were so. As I have repeatedly stated, what we know about pain is not enough to explain how it works. What we know about the mind is also far from giving us a complete picture. Nevertheless, we now know enough to give us a rational basis to explore the uses of the mind in the control of pain. The practice of meditation has been shown as one key to unlocking the mystery of pain.

The idea of using mental training to help people with chronic pain is basic to what I call mindbody training. As the name implies, there is more to it than just meditating. The next post will go into more detail.

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