Meditation can relieve pain, and it does so by activating multiple brain areas, according to an April 2011 study in the Journal of Neuroscience. Fadel Zeidan of Wake Forest University and his colleagues scanned people’s brains as they received uncomfortably hot touches to the leg. When subjects practiced a mindful meditation technique that encourages detachment from experience while focusing on breathing, they reported less pain than when they simply paid attention to their breathing. Likewise, different patterns of brain activity emerged under the two conditions, with mindful meditating resulting in more activity not only in executive centers that evaluate experiences and regulate emotions but also in lower regions that control the signals coming from the body.
The volunteers learned the meditation technique in only four 20-minute sessions, which means this pill-free analgesia could be a feasible way to help real patients suffering from pain. “People can reap some of the benefits of meditation without extensive training,” Zeidan says.
When I work with patients using mindfulness I start by asking who has experience with any type of meditation, breathing techniques and/or relaxation exercises. We than have a brief explanation and question and answer period and I focus on removing any doubt, fear, or skepticism. I usually than do a 10 to 12 minute body scan moving right into a mindful meditation that focuses on the breath.
With the co-occurring patients I work with this process seems to work the best. The chat in the beginning warms people up, the body scan relaxes which helps the meditators enter into a more meditative state.
A study of students in California universities showed that those who practiced a bit of meditation in their personal lives performed better on tests. This applied to students who practice the art of Zen, as well as those who simply meditate for a few minutes before class.
The research, published in the journal Mindfulness, showed that meditation worked best for first year students, which led researchers to speculate that younger students tend to struggle with concentration more.
Professor Robert Youmans, of George Mason University in Virginia, co-lead the study with University of Illinois doctoral student Jared Ramsburg. According to Professor Youmans:
“One difficulty for researchers who study meditation is that the supposed benefits of meditation do not always replicate across different studies or populations, and so we have been trying to figure out why. This data from this study suggest that meditation may help students who might have trouble paying attention or focusing. Sadly, freshmen classes probably contain more of these types of students than senior courses because student populations who have difficulty self-regulating are also more likely to leave the university.”
The researchers said that coaching students on proper meditation could improve academic results. Ramsburg’s own personal experiences inspired him to undertake the study (he is a Buddhist).
“I think that if mindfulness can improve mental clarity, focus and self-discipline, then it might be useful in a variety of settings and for a variety of goals.”
For anyone uncomfortable with meditation (even though it is not necessarily a religious practice), Ramsburg says that taking long walks in the morning before you start your day could inspire the same outcome.
“Basically, becoming just a little bit more mindful about yourself and your place in the world might have a very important, practical benefit – in this case, doing better in college.”
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Yoga is a mind and body practice in complementary medicine with origins in ancient Indian philosophy. Part two of evidence based Yoga:
Carpal tunnel syndrome A randomized, single-blind controlled trial of 42 patients with carpal tunnel syndrome assigned subjects to either a yoga treatment group or a wrist splint group, each 8 weeks in duration. Twice a week, the yoga group practiced postures specifically designed to strengthen and stretch each joint in the upper body. Yoga participants showed improvement in grip strength, pain levels, and Phalen’s sign when compared to the wrist splint group. Nerve conduction studies were not performed.15 A Cochrane review of 21 trials that evaluated the clinical outcome of nonsurgical treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome reported that 8 weeks of yoga practice significantly reduced pain as compared to wrist splinting. The yoga was described as having a “significant short-term benefit,” though the duration of this benefit is unknown.16
Depression A 2004 review of five RCTs that evaluated yoga-based interventions for depression and depressive disorders showed some positive outcomes and no adverse effects on patients’ mild to severe depressive disorders. However, poor study design and incomplete methodologic reporting makes this interpretation preliminary.17 An RCT studying 7 weeks of yoga training in a group of breast cancer survivors showed positive changes in emotional function, depression, and mood disturbance.18 “Yoga and stress management” (in the online version of this article) provides more information on this study and others involving the effects of yoga on stress.
Irritable bowel syndrome In an RCT, treatment with loperamide (Imodium) was compared to treatment with a series of 12 yoga postures practiced twice a day for 2 months in a small sample of patients with clinically diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome. Patients underwent measurement of surface electrogastrography, and trait and state anxiety tests were administered before, during, and up to 2 months after treatment. Both intervention groups demonstrated a decrease in bowel symptoms and state anxiety.19
Menopausal symptoms In a recent pilot study, 14 postmenopausal women reported via interview and questionnaire a decrease in the severity and frequency of hot flushes after 8 weeks of 90-minute “restorative yoga” classes. Although this initial finding sounds encouraging, this trial had no control group or objective parameter measurements.20 An RCT studying postmenopausal sleep quality divided 164 women into groups who participated in either 4 months of low-intensity yoga, a moderate-intensity walking program, or a wait-list control group. This study reported no statistically significant interventional effects of any treatment on total sleep quality or on any individual sleep quality domain.21
Multiple sclerosis An RCT of 57 subjects with clinically defined multiple sclerosis were assigned to weekly Iyengar yoga class plus home practice, a cycling program, or a wait-list control group for 6 months. Results showed that both active interventions produced significant improvement in perceived levels of energy and reduced fatigue; however, the specific effects of the yoga practice were not isolated.22 Osteoarthritis In a pilot study, 11 deconditioned, yoga naive subjects with a clinical diagnosis of knee osteoarthritis showed improvements in pain and knee stiffness after 8 weeks of yoga training. The group performed modified Iyengar yoga sessions once a week.23
Seizure disorders In 2000, a systematic review of the published literature revealed that only one study was able to meet the selection criteria for reliable research design. The reviewers concluded that no available evidence pointed to yoga therapy as an efficacious treatment for epilepsy.24
Strength and flexibility In a recent study on the fitness related effects of hatha yoga, 10 yoga-naïve and previously untrained subjects aged 18 to 27 years participated in 85 minutes of pranayama and hatha yoga practice twice a week for 8 weeks. These subjects showed significant improvement in upper and lower body muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility. No statistically significant change in body composition or pulmonary function was observed.13
In a partial RCT with a longer time frame, 54 subjects aged 20 to 25 years participated in either 5 months of yoga instruction or no activity. After that time period, both groups practiced yoga for an additional 5 months. The group practicing 10 months of yoga showed significant improvements in shoulder, trunk, hip, and neck flexibility, as well as a reported improved performance during submaximal exercise testing.25
A well-executed study compared subjects who underwent 24 hours of hatha yoga classes over 8 weeks with a control group. The yoga training group showed a 13% to 35% improvement in flexibility, balance, and muscular endurance. The authors concluded that hatha yoga practice has significant effects on balance and flexibility.26
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16. O’Connor D, Marshall S, Massy-Westropp N. Nonsurgical treatment (other than steroid injection) for carpal tunnel syndrome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003(1):CD003219.
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20. Cohen BE, Kanaya AM, Macer JL, et al. Feasibility and acceptability of restorative yoga for treatment of hot flushes: a pilot trial. Maturitas. 2007;56(2):198-204.
21. Elavsky S, McAuley E. Lack of perceived sleep improvement after 4-month structured exercise programs. Menopause. 2007;14(3, pt 1):535-540.
22. Oken BS, Kishiyama S, Zajdel D, et al. Randomized controlled trial of yoga and exercise in multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2004;62(11):2058-2064.
23. Kolasinski SL, Garfinkel M, Tsai AG, et al. Iyengar yoga for treating symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knees: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2005;11(4):689-693.
24. Ramaratnam S, Sridharan K. Yoga for epilepsy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000(3):CD001524.
25. Ray US, Mukhopadhyaya S, Purkayastha SS, et al. Effect of yogic exercises on physical and mental health of young fellowship course trainees. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2001;45(1):37-53.
26. Boehde D, Porcari JP, Greany J, et al. The physiological effects of 8 weeks of yoga training. J Cardiopulm Rehabil. 2005;25(5):290.