Meditation Shown to Ease Chronic Pain in Veterans

The practice of meditation may help veterans reduce chronic physical pain, according to a new pilot study conducted at the Washington, D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The findings show that meditation helps an individual accept and respond to pain with less stress and negative emotion, which significantly increases coping skills.

Many veterans return home with multiple types of trauma and suffer from one of the highest rates of chronic pain of any population in the United States. Musculoskeletal pain conditions are the most frequently diagnosed medical issue among U.S. veterans, exceeding any other medical and psychological concern.

Chronic pain is also found in most combat veterans who sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

A major challenge for health care providers is helping veterans safely alleviate long-term pain. Opioid medications, which are often given to individuals in severe pain, have been found to carry very negative side effects when taken long-term. Alternative practices, such as meditation, may be a light at the end of the tunnel for many patients in chronic pain.

The new findings show that veterans who practiced meditation reported a 20 percent reduction in pain intensity (how bad pain hurts) as well as pain interference (how pain interferes with everyday aspects of life, such as sleep, mood, work). The reductions were consistent across several methods by which doctors commonly measure pain in patients.

“Meditation allows a person to accept pain and to respond to pain with less stress and emotional reactivity. Our theory is that this process increases coping skills, which in turn can help veterans to self-manage their chronic pain,” said Thomas Nassif, Ph.D., lecturer in American University’s Department of Health Studies and researcher at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The form of mindfulness meditation used in the study, Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra, or iRest, is used at Veterans Health Administration medical centers and active-duty military facilities nationwide. The Army surgeon general’s Pain Management Task Force has cited iRest as a Tier I intervention for managing pain in military and veteran populations.

The pilot study involved a total of nine male veterans, four who received iRest meditation treatment, and five who did not. All study participants served in combat and returned to the U.S. with chronic pain and moderate TBI.

The veterans attended meditation sessions twice weekly at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center and were given iRest recordings to engage in self-practice as well. By the end of eight weeks, the study participants had acquired useful mindfulness skills that empowered them to use meditation as a tool to help manage their pain, Nassif said.

“In many cases, primary care physicians are the ones expected to help individuals overcome their chronic pain,” Nassif said. “One of the most commonly used tools we have in our toolbox is opioids. Veterans in this study, and many who come to meditation sessions, find that opioid medication is a short-term solution. Meditation could be a useful tool to help veterans manage their pain over the long term.”

The findings are published in the journal Military Behavioral Health.

Source: American University