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Meditation gets thumbs-up for pain, more muted support for stress

December 07, 2012|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times | For the Booster Shots Blog
  • A federal panel finds good evidence that meditation can alleviate pain. But evidence for its effectiveness as a reducer of stress and anxiety is a bit less persuasive, the panel found.
A federal panel finds good evidence that meditation can alleviate pain.… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Meditation this week won the scientific stamp of approval from a federal panel as a means of  reducing the severity of chronic and acute pain. The influential committee also concluded the practice of mindfulness has demonstrated effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety, but it found the scientific evidence for that claim weaker and more inconsistent.

As a therapy to promote positive feelings, induce weight loss and improve attention and sleep, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality was less impressed with meditation. The group concluded there is currently an insufficient body of scientific evidence to conclude meditation is effective in achieving those outcomes. 

Those findings are included in a draft report issued this week by the agency, an office within the Department of Health and Human Services Department that assesses research evidence on the safety and effectiveness of medical treatments. The draft is up for comment until Jan. 2.

The draft report does not distinguish among the many different forms of meditation, including Transcendental Meditation and mindfulness-based meditation. In reviewing 14,788 studies assessing meditation's effects, the panel found only 34 studies that met its standards of rigor. In those, the panel wrote, researchers provided subjects short courses in meditation -- typically about half of that provided outside of clinical trials. And the studies included in the assessment compared those who got the meditation therapy against control groups who did not.

For anxiety, depression and stress, the report found mindfulness meditation appeared to provide modest relief with consistency. Mantra-based meditation showed more inconsistent benefits.

At the same time, the panel noted that meditation is a practice whose health-promoting benefits may be difficult to capture in short-term clinical trials.

"Historically, the general public did not conceptualize meditation as a quick fix toward anything," the panel wrote in its draft report. "It was a skill one learns and practices over time to increase one's awareness, and through this awareness, gain insight and understanding into the various subtleties of existence. Trials of short duration may be insufficient to develop the skills necessary to affect stress outcomes."

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