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Yoga and Meditation Can Help with Chronic Pain Relief

When you’re in pain, all you want is for it stop. Chronic pain consumes everything else, derailing lives and leading to an endless quest for relief.

If you suffer from long-term pain, it’s little consolation that an estimated 100 million other Americans are in the same situation, spending approximately $635 billion annually on various drugs and treatments to relieve it.

Many of those solutions are either ineffective or potentially dangerous (e.g., opioid addiction). Our family practice doctors were pleased to learn of a new study published this month in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. It demonstrated the benefits of the safer, essentially free option of meditation for chronic pain relief.


Study results

The small-scale study took place in a semi-rural area of Oregon. It’s representative of many small towns around the country which lack ready access to affordable and modern medical care, and are also experiencing high rates of addiction.

Over the course of eight weeks, 28 participants ages 34 to 77 received intensive instruction in mindfulness meditation and mindful hatha yoga. At the conclusion of the study, 89 percent reported the program helped them better cope with their pain. Eleven percent reported no change in their pain levels or ability to manage them.

“Many people have lost hope because, in most cases, chronic pain will never fully resolve,” Cynthia Marske, D.O., an osteopathic physician and director of graduate medical education the the Community Health Clinics of Benton and Linn County, said in a statement. “However, mindful yoga and meditation can help improve the structure and function of the body, which supports the process of healing.”

She noted the difference between “healing” and “curing.”

“Curing means eliminating disease, while healing refers to becoming more whole,” she explained. “With chronic pain, healing involves learning to live with a level of pain that is manageable. For this, yoga and meditation can be very beneficial.”


Other studies, similar results

Although the Oregon study was small, it reinforces findings from numerous other such studies showing that yoga—and the mind discipline that accompanies it—can help individuals with the pain of migraine, back pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and many other chronic pain conditions.

One 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, found that among 313 people with chronic low back pain, one session of yoga weekly increased mobility more than the standard medical care they’d been receiving.

Another performed a meta-analysis of 17 studies, which included more than 1,600 participants. It found that yoga can improve daily function among those with fibromyalgia and osteoporosis-related curvature of the spine. It also improved their mood and psychosocial well-being.


The mind-body connection

That latter effect is important. Not only can chronic pain cause depression and a sense of hopelessness, but the effects of yoga on the mind are what sets it apart from simple stretching exercises.

“Chronic pain often goes hand-in-hand with depression,” said Marske, one of the Oregon study’s lead researchers. “Mindfulness-based meditation and yoga can help restore both a patient’s mental and physical health, and can be effective alone or in combination with other treatments such as therapy and medication.”

Along with training in the basic hatha yoga moves, the study participants also received instruction in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This trains people to be aware of the self in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. They were then told to practice the techniques for 30 minutes a day, six days a week.

Researchers found at the conclusion of the study that pre-and post-study measurements of depression had decreased as much as if they were taking an antidepressant.


Proceed with caution

Anyone of any age or fitness level can start yoga, with proper training and some restrictions.

Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says yoga is generally low-impact and safe for healthy people when practiced under the guidance of a well-trained instructor, it has issued some cautions for those who are pregnant, have high blood pressure, glaucoma, or sciatica, suggesting these people should modify or avoid some yoga poses, especially inverted poses like the headstand and shoulder stand.

It also warns that Bikram yoga (so-called “hot yoga”) presents special risks related to overheating and dehydration. Those over the age of 65 should be aware of the need to be particularly cautious when practicing yoga in order to avoid injury.

Carefully selecting a certified yoga instructor is key to avoiding injury, the NIH cautions. They must possess at least 200 hours of training.

If you’d like to pursue the practice of yoga or meditation for chronic pain relief or just to improve your health overall, check with us first. We can help assess your level of fitness and answer any concerns you may have regarding your ability to participate.

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