U.S. Veterans: Meditation May Help With Chronic Pain Management

First Posted: Feb 06, 2016 04:54 PM EST

Could meditation help U.S. veterans manage chronic pain?

New findings published in the journal Military Behavioral Health reveal that veterans who practiced meditation during the study reported a 20 percent reduction in pain intensity and how pain interfered with everyday aspects of their life--as well as sleep, mood and activity levels. Furthermore, these reductions were consistent across several methods that included common methods by which doctors commonly measure pain.

Pain remains a significant health problem in about 2.6 million service members who served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq since the conflicts began in 2001, according to Veterans Health Administration. Musculoskeletal pain conditions are the most frequently diagnosed medical issue, exceeding any other medical and psychological concern, researchers say, while chronic pain is also found in most combat veterans who sustained a traumatic brain injury.

"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., a professorial lecturer in American University's Department of Health Studies, researcher at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in a news release.

Researchers administered mindfulness mediation in the study, known as Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra, or iRest, that is used at Veterans Health Administration medical centers and active-duty military facilities nationwide. The Pain Management Task Force of the Army surgeon general has citied iRest as a Tier I intervention for managing pain in military and veteran populations, researchers say. 

Four male veterans received iRest mediation treatment during the pilot study while five did not. All of the participants served in combat and then returned to the U.S. with chronic pain and TBI. Then, they were required to attend four sessions twice a week at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center and then 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."

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