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Can mindfulness meditation help keep pain under control?

New research suggests that mindfulness meditation and stress reduction techniques based on the ancient practice may help ease chronic pain.

A team of researchers from the Ottawa Hospital reviewed a selection of 21 separate studies on chronic pain management. Thirteen of the studies focused on cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the main stress-reduction treatments used for chronic pain patients. The rest looked at mindfulness meditation and related techniques.

The researchers wanted to find out if mindfulness – which has deep roots but has gone viral in recent years as a trendy stress-reduction technique – is as effective in treating chronic pain as CBT.

It seems to be, they concluded.

“Findings … for change in physical functioning, pain intensity and depression revealed clinically important advantages relative to control for [mindfulness-based stress reduction] and CBT, but no evidence of an important difference between MBSR and CBT was found,” they wrote in their analysis, published in the journal Evidence-Based Mental Health.

Mindfulness meditation, long practiced in various forms of Buddhism, first drew the attention of psychologists and psychiatrists in the 1970s. Since then, researchers have developed a collection of mindfulness-based tools to treat anxiety and depression.

Since then, the technique has caught on as a way to relieve stress, battle addiction, aid in weight loss, ease symptoms of menopause and more.

With studies showing the potential mental health benefits – like CBT, which is also used in mental health treatment – the researchers wondered whether mindfulness meditation could help chronic pain patients.

One in five adults suffers from chronic pain, and that can have a profound effect beyond just the physical.

“Core components of [mindfulness] include increasing awareness of one’s body, emotions, sensations, thoughts as well as learning self-regulation strategies and more adaptive responses to stress,” the researchers wrote.

Like CBT, which teaches patients how to adapt to their situations and find coping strategies, mindfulness meditation focuses on accepting and working around pain. While more research is needed, the team said, mindfulness-based stress reduction holds some promise for treating pain.

“Although a number of recommendations have been proposed to improve CBT for patients with [chronic pain], an additional solution may be to offer patients MBSR since it shows promise in improving pain severity and reducing pain interference and psychological distress,” they wrote.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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