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Meditation a Hit for Pain Management

Back in 1979, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts named Jon Kabat-Zinn had an idea. He was trained in the Vipassana tradition of Buddhist meditation, and he had a hunch that if he pared-down the technique, it could help patients at the university's medical center.

"The idea was to actually... train these medical patients in Buddhist meditative practices, but without the Buddhism," says Kabat-Zinn.

The idea of mind-body health wasn't well explored at the time, so Kabat-Zinn approached physicians and pain specialists at the university. He asked them to refer their patients to his new clinic, which happened to be set up in a windowless, underground office in a medical building.

"I wasn't objecting," says Kabat-Zinn. "Even with no air and no light and my wife saying, 'How can you work in these conditions?'" it didn't deter patients from seeking out the mindfulness training, either."

Stripped-Down Mindfulness

"The heart of Buddhist meditation is actually called mindfulness, and our operational definition of it is really paying attention in the only moment we're ever alive — which is the present moment," Kabat-Zinn says.

This can be tough for people living with pain. After all, who wants to be "in the moment" when your joints are aching, your head's throbbing, or you're living with a scary diagnosis? No wonder our first impulse is to run away. Bill Mies tried that.

"I am a stressed-out guy," say Mies, "but I've been working on it for a long time."

Mies is a yacht broker from Annapolis, Md., with a full white beard. About a year ago, he started having shoulder and neck problems. He saw doctors who gave him injections and a physical therapist who prescribed some exercises, but he still wasn't completely better.

He eventually found his way to a mindfulness class in Baltimore, modeled on Kabat-Zinn's teachings. The course is now offered in dozens of hospitals and medical centers around the country, and studies suggest it does help people cope with the psychological distress of diseases, such as arthritis, psoriasis and cancer.

The Body Scan

During one recent class, Bill Mies and seven other students practiced a technique called the body scan. Lying on mats and pillows wearing socks and comfy clothes, instructor Trish Magyari walked them through a sort of mental tour of the body.

"We'll travel down through the body bringing our awareness into our left foot," says Magyari. When people learn to stay with the scan, it becomes a useful trick or tool to shift your focus — whenever you need to.

"The point of it is to train our mind where we want it to go," Magyari says, instead of letting the mind wander into worry or be held hostage by the panic of pain.

Bill Mies finds the body scan extremely helpful at times, but acknowledges that during his most recent class, he was struggling.

"I found my mind drifting," he says. He found himself thinking, "I should be doing something more productive instead of paying attention to the sensations in my left leg."

Quieting these thoughts is a challenge for people just starting out, says Magyari. But the question is: If you can stick with it, does mindfulness training really help?

"I think the concept of who does it work for... depends on what exactly we're measuring," Magyari says.

Take for example, a small research study with 63 rheumatoid arthritis patients. After two months of mindfulness training, the patients' physical symptoms did not disappear, but they reported feeling better. Scores of psychological distress dropped 30 percent.

"It's true that not everyone's arthritis status changed," says Magyari. "However, the (patients) feel like they're coping with their arthritis much better than they were before."

The power to "stay in the moment" is not a gift. As Bill Mies is learning, it takes a lot of practice to get the benefits.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.