We tend to think that mindfulness meditation is a prescription for the treatment of stress.  However, a new study has shown that as little as eight weeks of involvement in a group program focused on mindfulness-based stress reduction appears to help with short-term function and long-term pain, at least for some individuals suffering from chronic low back ailments.

The researchers studied 282 older adults, with an average age of 74, who had been experiencing functional limitations due to chronic low back pain. The results were published in an edition of “JAMA Internal Medicine” last month.

The subjects were randomly separated into two groups: In the mindfulness group, the subjects were instructed in four methods of meditation, utilizing directed breathing and mindful awareness of the various thoughts and sensations in the seated, supine and ambulatory positions, in addition to participating in mindful stretching during the first eight weeks of the study.

The comparison group met for the same amount of time in groups of the same size with the same amount of “homework” and time with a facilitator, but instead focused oneducation based on the “10 Keys to Healthy Aging,” which does not address pain. In addition, they were educated about managing high blood pressure, and did the same chair stretches as the mindfulness group.

Both groups underwent the eight-week programs described above, followed by monthly sessions for an additional six months.  During the six months of these “booster” sessions, subjects met to meditate and discuss themes of the mindfulness program.

As patients practiced mindfulness meditation and tried to stay more focused on the present moment, participants found they experienced less pain. They also saw short-term benefits in physical function, the study found.

While time is closest to the best treatment for the older chronic pain patient, as 75 percent of pain will get better within two months, and 90 percent within three months, simply telling patients to be patient can be a very frustrating thing for patients and physicians.  And now we have an intervention in which 37 percent of the healthy living group said that their back pain had eased after the two-month program; but that figure was more than 80 percent among the mindfulness participants. Six months later, 42 percent of the healthy living group said their pain had at least “minimally” improved, compared with more than 76 percent among the meditation group.

Chronic pain is one of the most common conditions affecting patients over 65 years of age.  Other studies have documented that the older patient with chronic pain is receptive to nonpharmacologic therapies, many citing concerns about adverse drug effects and the use of too many medications.  The study described above demonstrates that there are acceptable and feasible treatment options for this, and possibly other, chronic pain populations.

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