Minding Your Pain

Recent research into pain management may help spread the word of yoga's therapeutic benefits.

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Many yogis can attest to the therapeutic benefits of their practice, but recent research may help spread the word by showing how effective yoga can be when teamed with Western medicine. The study, conducted by Patrick Randolph, Ph.D., at Texas Tech University, combined the mindful therapy of yoga and meditation with traditional medical treatment among chronic pain sufferers and found that the one-two punch was superior to medicine alone.

Randolph targeted chronic pain because it’s an ailment he believes is as much mental as physical. “Most of the people who experience chronic pain are also going to experience depression or anxiety,” says Randolph, former director of psychological services at the International Pain Institute at Texas Tech University’s Health and Science Center. “So when we treat chronic pain, we need to treat both the body and the mind at the same time.”

Enter yoga and meditation. Doctor Randolph says the Eastern philosophical approaches, in general, tend to see mind and body as united and interactive with each other, while Western medicine views the body and mind as separate. “But Western medicine is our dharma and can be effective too. That’s one of the reasons we utilized both Western and Eastern together because you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

More than 50 million Americans suffer from some type of chronic pain, according to the American Pain Foundation. Pain sufferers endure the highest levels of negative stress, which is the leading cause of breakdown of the immune and nervous systems. Chronic pain, unlike acute pain, is often not associated with a particular injury and can come and go over months or even years with no pattern. Treatments have included painkillers and methods such as acupuncture, electrical stimulation, and place with varying levels of success.

Randolph’s study was not the first time yoga and meditation had been used to treat chronic pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn has effectively treated chronic pain with his Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program (SR&RP). Yet patients may have had additional treatment during that program, so it is difficult to determine what influence, if any, that may have had on the results. The Texas Tech study was modeled after SR&RP but went one step further by recording what additional treatment the participants were undergoing before, during, and after. The 78 patients, drawn from a nearby west Texas city, attended several cycles of two-hour classes that used gentle poses with an emphasis on mindfulness and were required to meditate for a minimum of 45 minutes per day, six days per week, with the aid of an audiocassette tape. Afterward, 79 percent said their condition somewhat or greatly improved.

The study also revealed a pleasant surprise with regard to yoga’s acceptance among Christians. Most of the patients identified themselves as Christians, and when asked how consistent the mindfulness practices were with their own religious background, an overwhelming number said that not only did they feel comfortable doing the poses and meditation, but they also felt the practices helped them to grow spiritually. Randolph is spurred to explore this relationship in more detail. “These findings suggest that both mainstream and Christian America can find these practices helpful.”