When Pat Vroom gets going about the benefits of meditation for pain relief, some might get the urge to lie down on a yoga mat. Her voice is that soothing.
"The past is gone," said Vroom, who started the Mind-Body Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. "We have no idea what the future holds, so the goal is to focus on the present. When our bodies hurt, we not only experience the actual physical pain, but also a secondary pain that stems from the mind."
Confession: I've never meditated in my life, and people who bump me with their purple yoga mats on the subway put me in a bad mood. Still, I'm listening.
Says Vroom: "The brain is screaming 'I don't want to be in pain,' and we dwell on that thought. We dwell on the idea that we will still be in pain the next day, and the next, and these thoughts only exasperate the original pain."
There is a plethora of data supporting the idea that those who practice what researchers call "mindfulness meditation" have an easier time dealing with chronic pain. But when it comes to data focusing on senior citizens in particular — not so much. This is despite the fact that about one-fourth of older adults live with chronic lower back pain.
That is precisely why Dr. Natalia Morone of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine led a pilot study on the efficacy of meditation in treating chronic back pain in seniors. Morone and her team rounded up 37 lower back pain sufferers older than 65 and willing to commit to an eight-week regimen consisting of 90 minutes of group work once a week.
"A lot of people, including colleagues, questioned whether older people would be interested, whether they would show up, make it through the program. Actually it was very easy to find recruits," Morone said. "But the response was enthusiastic, and 30 out of the original 37 completed the study. There was little to no resistance to meditation, so I think the idea that seniors are unwilling is … a myth."
In addition to guided meditation, participants in the study continued to take the painkillers (ranging from ibuprofen to narcotic injections) they were on before. This is important, says Morone, as complementary medicine is not meant to take the place of allopathic medicine.
It has long been noted that around 30 percent of pain sufferers report feeling better after participating in any kind of legitimate pain study. There are a variety of reasons for this, most notably the validation response. That means that some people feel better once they know their condition is being taken seriously.
Nevertheless, these findings support what an increasing number of researchers believe: Meditation helps people in pain cope and function better. Possibly the most telling result of Morone's study is that three months after the patients completed the eight-week study, the majority were still practicing meditation on their own.