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The Power of Meditation

By Rebecca Basu

Soldiers Salute

They return to the United States with multiple types of trauma, and suffer from chronic pain at one of the highest rates of any population in the United States. They are US veterans, and their healthcare providers are working overtime to help alleviate this pain.

Now, a new study suggests that veterans may be empowered to help themselves with the practice of meditation.

Research conducted at the Washington DC VA Medical Center reveals that veterans who practiced meditation reported a 20 percent reduction in pain intensity, as well as pain interference (how pain interferes with everyday aspects of life, such as sleep, mood, and activity level).

“Meditation allows a person to accept pain and respond to it 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, who conducted the study while a professorial lecturer in AU’s Department of Health Studies. He is also a researcher at the VA Medical Center, and lead author of the study, which was published in Military Behavioral Health. This summer Nassif will leave American University to serve as an active duty officer and research psychologist in the US Army.

Pain is a significant health issue among the approximately 2.6 million service members who served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq since 2001, according to the Veterans Health Administration. Musculoskeletal pain conditions are the most frequently diagnosed issue, exceeding any other medical and psychological concern. Chronic pain is also found in most combat veterans who have sustained a traumatic brain injury.

The form of mindfulness meditation administered in the study, Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra, or iRest, is used at Veterans Health Administration medical centers and active-duty military facilities nationwide. The study participants attended meditation sessions twice weekly and were given iRest recordings to engage in self-practice. By the end of eight weeks, they 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 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.”