Mind over matter: Mount Sinai physicians study meditation as pain reliever

Patients practice mindfulness and mind training

Physicians at Mount Sinai Hospital are studying whether meditation can help to relieve pain in spinal surgery patients, Lucette Lagnado reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Patricia Bloom, a clinical associate professor of geriatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said, "We are not hoping to replace the need for pain medication." Rather, she added, "We are trying to understand: Can you help people's pain to resolve faster and can you make their need for narcotics less?"  

Bloom and Arthur Jenkins, an associate professor of neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery at Mount Sinai, are spearheading a clinical trial to determine whether meditation can help reduce pain after surgery. The study differs than prior research, Bloom said, because it focuses on acute post-operative pain—the sort of pain that often requires opioid painkillers—rather than chronic pain associated with hypertension or heart disease.

Under pressure to reduce painkiller use, physicians consider meditation

According to Jenkins, the study was spurred by increasing pressure on physicians to curb addiction risks by limiting the use of opioid painkillers. Jenkins said he's tried other ways to reduce painkiller use, such as conducting less-invasive surgeries with shorter recover times, but that those alternatives aren't always viable options.

In 2011, Jenkins had an "epiphany" after finding a study that demonstrated that meditation could be used to reduce physical pain. In the study, researchers found that when participants were subjected to pain using heated probes, the participants who meditated reported 40 percent lower pain intensity than those who did not meditate.

That study, Jenkins said, was "exactly what [he was] looking for."

Study design, preliminary experiences

In the Mount Sinai trial, spinal surgery patients are randomly assigned to a group that practices meditation and receives painkillers or to another group that receives only painkillers.

Patients in the meditation group are trained in a few simple mental exercises, which they are asked to practice for two weeks before and six weeks after their surgery. According to Bloom, the exercises—a mix of mindfulness meditation and a form of mind training called Open Focus—help with relaxation and pain reduction. Patients are given audiotapes for guidance.

So far, the researchers have enrolled about half of the 50 participants they aim to recruit, which means the results of the study may not be available for another few years. But some patients who have tried mediation say it seems to make their pain more tolerable.

For example, Clifford Glenn Gualano, one participant who practiced meditation for his procedure earlier this month, said while the mental exercises haven't cut the "very severe pain," they have helped him relax and wait for his next dose of painkillers. "If it starts hurting, and I need to take a pill, I will try the meditation first," Gualano said.

Separately, Barry Wollner, another participant who initially expressed skepticism, said that because of meditation, he did not need to take much of his prescribed oxycodone (Lagnado, Wall Street Journal, 9/19).

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