By Jen Jenkins
According to national health figures, one in four adults in the United States has experienced back pain within the past month. Back pain is the second most common cause of disability for American adults and is a leading cause of disability worldwide. Sufferers have tried it all, from painkillers and shots to physical therapy. In our previous post on MCNTalk we discussed chronic pain in the United States and the growing concerns surrounding opioid painkillers, their addictive nature, and the rise in opioid-related deaths. Amid this evolving crisis, a new study is now reporting that many people may find relief with a form of meditation called mindfulness-based stress reduction. This technique harnesses the power of the mind to help manage pain and involves a combination of meditation, body awareness and yoga.
“This new study is exciting, because here’s a technique that doesn’t involve taking any pharmaceutical agents, and doesn’t involve the side effects of pharmaceutical agents.”
– Dr. Madhav Goyal
Dr. Madhav Goyal of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine co-wrote an editorial accompanying the paper published on the study of mindfulness-based stress reduction. Participants in the study were assigned to meditation or cognitive behavior therapy and they received eight weekly two-hour sessions of group training in the techniques. Six months later, those learning meditation had an easier time with activities such as getting up out of a chair, climbing stairs, or putting on socks; a year later, they were still doing better and expressed meaningful improvement. The sheer size of this study is considered one of its strengths – it included 342 participants ranging from age 20 to age 70. However, Dr. Goyal does warn, “It may not be for everybody.” Some people with back pain might find yoga and certain movements too painful, but Dr. Goyal thinks that this technique is very empowering for people who want to do something using their own mind to help their pain.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed in the 1970s by scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who used Buddhist meditation practices as a template for his technique. Dr. Cherkin explained that the goal is for pain sufferers to increase their awareness of their experience through meditation. They are meant to understand how their pain is affecting them and more importantly, how they respond to it. The idea is for participants “to change their mindset and, in a way, almost befriend the pain, and not feel it’s oppressing them.”
It is important to be able to offer a lot of options for chronic pain because while some treatments may help some people, they may not work well for others. Dr. Cherkin believes that mindfulness-based stress reduction is helpful because even if someone does not use it all the time, it is a skill they will never forget and it is something that can be used anywhere. Currently, the downsides for those who are interested in mindfulness-based stress reduction revolve around getting access to is, which is problematic without certified instructor training available everywhere; and, as an alternative remedy, receiving instruction in it may not be covered by health insurance.
View this New York Times article on mind-based therapy and back pain. Also, please share your comments with us!
John C Martucci says
I’ve had back pain on and off since I was fifteen. A few years ago a doctor realized the top piece of my sacrum didn’t fuse so it’s like I have an extra lumbar vertebrae, but with no cushioning. He suggested I work on strengthening my core, which I promptly ignored for two years of misery and ibuprofen abuse. When I finally focused on my core it helped but even in good shape I would have flare ups that were painful and lasted for a week or more.
Someone suggested I try yoga and I may have laughed in their face. I’m agile, but as flexible as a steel beam. I tried a DVD and initially it was awful. I was trying to find an answer in one 30 minute workout. My wife said I was trying too hard. More specifically she said “I don’t think anyone has made those faces while doing yoga.”
So I started stretching to the video but, to just beyond my comfort level. In a few days my back pain disappeared. I haven’t kept faithful to it regularly, but whenever I do experience back pain, I find 10 -15 minutes of meditative space to do stretches and it helps. It works so much better for me than all of the pain or anti-inflammatory medication.
I think there are two obstacles for people.
#1. It’s always easier to take a pill, than to work hard or make time for something else in your busy life.
#2. Nobody likes looking stupid in yoga positions if they are out of shape or in pain. Life is vulnerable enough!