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Is meditation an effective treatment for pain?

In a culture caught up in the can-do mentality, the idea of treating pain through the mind is viewed with some suspicion. People have been taught to believe drugs and formal invention by a trained specialist are the routes to an effective cure. This is the American way. If the body is broken, you fix the body. There’s no need for any New Age, touchy-feely talk. The only words a patient ever needs to hear are, “Repairs have been made. Get on with your life.” Indeed, people who persistently complain of pain but have no obvious injuries or disease, can find themselves attacked as malingerers trying to game the benefit system. Family, friends and neighbors can rapidly run out of sympathy if you seem to be a freeloader. Against this background, the healthcare service does offer a limited range of counseling and support options. Why limited? Why are these services not pushed more aggressively? Because the high number of staff required to run these services drives up the operating costs. The hospital does not make as much profit as from other services.

There is a substantial volume of evidence from research studies around the world to prove a clear link between a patient’s attitude and a patient’s awareness of pain. Those who are relaxed and have a positive outlook on life have lower sensitivity to pain. Those who are anxious, stressed and shading into depression are more likely to experience more intense pain. So what’s the problem? For patients to get benefits from psychological counseling, they have to invest time and money. This is not an easy cure that might come from the simple act of swallowing a pill. It requires people to make an effort. Put all this together and you see the problem. Because many private health plans do not include the cost of counseling and family budgets are under strain with the current recession, most believe they cannot afford this approach.

The focus is on the cost now, not the cost of drugs spread over years. In the long term, people will save money but it requires investment now. If this means a little extra debt, it’s well worth it. The most recent research published in The Journal of Pain shows that even one hour of meditation training produces a reduction in the level of pain felt. The full range of treatment options are meditation training, distraction and relaxation. The evidence clearly shows that people feel less pain while actually meditating. Even after meditation, the effect of pain relief continues, i.e. people perceive the pain differently. Similarly, people who train their minds to relax or focus their attention on different factors in the environment also experience pain relief. The level of pain remains constant. The focus in all three options is to treat the emotional response to it.

None of this denies the valuable role to be played by drugs such as tramadol. As one of the first-choice drugs used by people in pain, there are millions who will testify that it works to relieve moderate to severe pain. It does make sense to buy tramadol and get some of that relief. However, no matter how convenient it is to pop pills, in the long term, meditation is cheaper and better. It’s your choice.