Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain, a condition that has contributed to the opioid epidemic in the United States for the past three decades, costing the country billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. Now, a groundbreaking new study is showing yoga, meditation, and other forms of mindfulness-based stress reductions may help patients manage that pain.
“People who use opioids have many conditions in common such as pain, depression and anxiety”, says author Dr. Cynthia Marske, an osteopathic physician. “These all cause lower life functioning and catastrophic thoughts. Yoga, mindfulness practice and meditation can help the brain and the body work better thus making more of your own chemicals of well being and natural pain relievers. Many people then have the ability to wean off or use less chemicals such as opioids, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.”
This was a small study conducted in Oregon among a semi-rural population. Researchers say issues of affordability, addiction, and access to care are common in that area. They worked with 28 participants who reported having chronic pain for at least one year before enrolling in the study. Researchers say the participants were instructed in mindfulness, meditation, and mindful hatha yoga during an eight-week period. The program focuses on training people to have an awareness of the self in the present moment, and in a nonjudgmental manner.
Following the course, participants reported a significant improvement in depression, disability, and pain scores, with 89% reporting the program helped them find better ways to cope with their pain. Researchers say when looking at the patient health questionnaire scores, a standard measure of depression, the numbers dropped by 3.7 points on a 27-point scale after the program. Dr. Marske says for some, that’s similar to using an antidepressant. “Chronic pain often goes hand-in-hand with depression,” she says, “mindfulness-based meditation and yoga can help restore both a patient’s mental and physical health and can be effective alone or in combination with other treatments such as therapy and medication.”
For many patients, Dr. Marske recommends a combination of therapies. She gives the example of trying meditation to help fall asleep, yoga to help with pain control, and a mindfulness practice to help with improved thoughts and attitude. Therapeutic movements such as tai chi and Qi Gong are also effective. Dr. Marske says she’d like to see more small groups offered in medical practices to teach clients methods like these.
Authors say this was a pilot study, and in the future more larger studies need to explore these outcomes. But, Dr. Marske is heartened by the possibilities they may offer patients searching for a way to cope with chronic pain. “Teaching mindfulness based stress reduction helps people for a lifetime”, says Dr. Marske, “and feeds their mind, body and spirit.”
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.