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Washington DC VA Medical Center

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Meditation and Pain Management

Men and women sitting comfortably with their eyes closed in a guided group meditation session

Men and women sitting comfortably with their eyes closed in a guided group meditation session

Monday, February 22, 2016

A small pilot study conducted at the Washington, DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center reveals that Veterans who practiced meditation reported a 20 percent reduction in pain intensity and pain interference, or how pain interferes with everyday aspects of life. The study, published in Military Behavioral Health, suggests Veterans may be empowered to help themselves with the practice of meditation.

This is good news for the approximately 2.6 million service members who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom who experience significant chronic pain.

“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 Dr. Thomas Nassif, a professorial lecturer in American University’s Department of Health Studies, researcher at DCVAMC, and lead author of the study.

The form of mindfulness meditation administered in the study, Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra, or iRest, is used at VA medical centers and active-duty military facilities nationwide. It is an ancient form of guided deep relaxation and meditation that is easy to practice.  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 consisted of four male Veterans 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 participants attended meditation sessions twice weekly at DCVAMC and were given iRest recordings and encouraged to self-practice outside of the formal sessions.

At the end of the eight-week study, Veterans in the iRest program reported a 20 percent reduction in pain intensity. They also reported the pain was less likely to interfere with daily activities like sleeping, mood or activity level. The reductions were consistent across several methods by which doctors commonly measure pain in patients.

Veterans who have served in combat often have multiple types of trauma, from brain injuries to missing limbs. Managing chronic pain can be difficult, as medications used to treat the problem can have side effects and may be addicting. “Meditation could be a useful tool to help veterans manage their pain over the long term," said Dr. Nassif.

Veterans in the DC area who are interested in IRest or other complementary or alternative therapies, can speak to their primary care providers about the medical center’s Integrative Health and Wellness Program.

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