Mediation: A new alternative against chronic pain?

Actor Ted Danson has played characters from a lovable lothario in Cheers to a mercurial demon in The Good Place. But off-screen, he doesn’t play around when it comes to taking care of himself. In fact, Danson, 72, began practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM) in 1995, the same year that he tied the knot with actress Mary Steenburgen.

When his wife introduced him to TM, a form of silent meditation typically practiced twice a day that involves repeating a resonant saying or mantra, Danson liked that it was something they could do together. Now, he finds it helps with age-related issues.

“Life gets more complicated and stressful the older you are. I no longer find meditation fun and interesting — I find it a lifesaver.”

Danson suffers from occasional arthritis flare-ups and finds that practicing regularly is key. “At the beginning or end of a new job, my hip will be killing me. My back will be hurting,” says Danson, a spokesperson for Cigna’s stress care plan program. He finds that taking the time to focus on breathing for 10 or 20 minutes at a stretch (often during his lunch break on set) makes a huge difference in the way his body feels afterward.

“You need to find something that allows you to get outside yourself.”

What does research think of it?

There is, in fact, a growing pool of research that reinforces the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on chronic pain. But how exactly does the practice work as a pain reliever? Using fMRI, a study published in August 2019 in the journal Pain Reports found that meditation can shut down and possibly reprogram how the brain processes pain by reducing or modulating activity in certain areas.

Another benefit of Danson’s meditation practice: He has become more self-aware and, over time, has observed a connection between physical pain and suppressed emotions. “I don’t like to be honest with my emotions. I bury them,” he admits. “Then my body says, ‘You want something to be mad about? I’ll give you something.’”

Interestingly, the pain circuits in the brain can also be activated by negative thoughts and emotions, such as fear and anger.

A review published in November 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that mind-body therapies including meditation are associated with moderate improvements in pain and small reductions in opioid dose and may be associated with therapeutic benefits for opioid-related problems, such as opioid craving and misuse.

Meditation helps patients decrease both the number of pain medications they take and the overall dose. Health professionals start to believe that  mindfulness meditation a viable alternative to pain medications, including opioids. 

How long does it take to reap the pain-relieving benefits of meditation? 

A study published in 2018 in Experimental Biology suggests that people can begin to derive psychological and physiological benefits from the practice after a single session. However, it may take longer to develop a tolerance to pain. One short-term meditation training study found that six one-hour meditation training sessions (twice weekly) effectively increased pain tolerance in subjects. Improvements happen with a continued and regular meditation practice. This means you shouldn’t give up if you still have pain after a few days.

Danson is the first to admit he’s been inconsistent in establishing a daily practice. “But if I’m in a period of consistency,” he says, “[the effects] are more evident. And even when I’m inconsistent, it’s still beneficial.”

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