Meditation for pain relief gains respect from doctors

Meditation is gaining more favour in medicine for relieving pain, Canadian and U.S. doctors say.

"Our review found moderate strength of evidence that mindfulness meditation programs are beneficial for reducing pain severity," says the draft report by a panel of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research Quality.

The panel reviewed 34 randomized trials with control groups to rigorously assess the effects of meditation.

The draft U.S. report is open for public comments until Jan 2. The report could be used to develop clinical practice guidelines or as a basis for reimbursing and coverage policies, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the agency’s director, and her co-authors said.

Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix is a physician psychotherapist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, where meditation has been part of the pain program for 10 years.

"As we work with the mind, we're actually doing biochemical changes in the same way as we might think of medications doing," Gardner-Nix said.

Gardner-Nix teaches meditation to about 1,000 patients a year. Ontario’s provincial health plan covers the courses for those referred by a physician.

Guy Russell of Markham, Ont., meditates for at least 20 minutes a day to relieve chronic pain since he developed shingles on one eye. Strong medications and other conventional therapies weren't working.

"Crawling ants, tingling, burning, prickly, stabbing, dull, throbbing," is how he described the pain in his face. Even water falling on his head when he’s in the shower feels different on the affected side, he said.

After a month of meditating, Russell was able to return to work. Mindful meditation reminds him to focus on breathing instead of worrying about the pain, he said.

"After a while meditating, we tend to settle in with the pain and approach it more as something to collaborate with as opposed to an enemy," said Gardner-Nix, who also teaches classes for medical professionals.

"It's low tech, it doesn't cost much and it can reduce the number of times that patients see their doctors after they’ve done this because they become much more aware of how to treat themselves," she said.

In other jurisdictions, meditation services could cost several hundred dollars, Gardner-Nix said.

The U.S. panel also looked at whether meditation helps reduce anxiety, depression and stress, and concluded there’s little evidence.