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To Soothe Chronic Pain, Meditation Proves Better Than Pills

Chronic pain is estimated to affect over 76 million people, more than diabetes and heart disease combined, and back pain is our country's leading cause of disability for people under 45. And though the pharmaceutical industry seems very adept at introducing one new painkiller after another, the pills don't always help. A new study in the Journal of Neuroscience, however, suggests something else might: meditation. It seems that improving your meditation technique could very well be more effective than painkillers at cutting down on pain, and that could save you hundreds in prescription drug costs.

The details: This was a small study that looked at just 15 adults who sat through four 20-minute training sessions on mindfulness meditation. However, before and after the training, the participants' brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and during each scan, the researchers put a heating device that induced pain for a five-minute period on each of the meditators' right leg at varying intervals. The brain scans revealed that before meditation, the section of the brain that processes pain was very active, while after meditation training, activity levels were virtually undetectable. Furthermore, after the meditation training, the study participants reported an average 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and an average 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. The study authors noted that morphine and other pain-relieving drugs usually reduce pain perception and unpleasantness by just 25 percent.

What it means: It's no surprise that mindfulness meditation techniques can help us cope with difficult situations, and this mind-body connection has been so extensively studied by researchers that doctors already know that meditation can lower blood pressure, depression, anger, and anxiety. Some evidence suggests it can boost your immune system and prevent the flu, among other illnesses. However, this is the first study to show that it can lower actual physical pain. "This study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications," the authors write.

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If you find yourself suffering from some form of chronic pain, try mindfulness meditation. Fortunately, it's easy to learn, and as this study shows, you only need a few minutes a day to reap the benefits.

Get the basics down. Here are some basic instructions for starting out with mindfulness meditation from Rodale.com advisor Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, and author of the Mind-Body Mood Solution (Rodale, 2010).

1. Sit up comfortably, eyes closed, making sure your head and neck are held upright.

2. Focus attention on your breathing, following the inward breath and the outward breath. This is not so much about thinking about breathing as much as experiencing the sensation of breathing.

3. Notice when your attention is drawn to a thought, sound, or sensation, and bring your attention back to the breath.

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4. If you find yourself judging any aspect of what you are experiencing—for instance, if you find yourself lost in thought and judge that doing so is "wrong" or "bad"—just notice the judgment as "thought," and bring attention back to your breathing.

5. Just stay present. If what you are experiencing is pleasant and you notice any tendency to want to hold on to that experience, just let it go by retuning to the breath. If what you are experiencing is unpleasant and you notice any tendency to push it away, just notice what you are experiencing and return to the breath.

6. Remember, we are not trying to get anywhere when we meditate. We are practicing the art of being here.

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Focus on your breath. The hardest part about mindfulness meditation is keeping your mind from wandering. An easy meditation tip for beginners is to focus on your breath whenever you find yourself worrying about a problem at work or focusing on whatever physical pain you're trying to deal with. Think about where your breath is coming from (your belly or chest), where you feel it (in your nose, on your upper lip), how deeply you're breathing, and so forth.

Practice daily. Begin with 10 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation, Rossman suggests, and try to work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes. You can meditate pretty much anywhere that's comfortable—on the floor, in bed, in a straight-back chair, even. Wherever you choose, try to do it in the same place every day in order to maintain consistency, and do it at a time when you aren't sleepy.

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