Meditation Helps Veterans Self-Manage Chronic Pain

A small study on veterans showed that meditation paired with yoga nidra helped an individual respond to chronic pain with less emotional reactivity.


Meditation improves cognitive function by activating the body’s parasympathetic nervous system—the relaxation response—and lengthens telomeres at the end of chromosomes, potentially slowing aging. A regular practice makes us happier, healthier, more mindful and compassionate beings. And now that research is showing meditation’s profound ability to reduce pain threshold—is there anything meditation can’t do?

A new pilot study conducted on nine veterans at the Washington, D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center showed that a twice weekly meditation practice helped an individual respond to pain with less stress and negative emotions. Chronic pain affects millions of Americans, but among the 2.6 million service members who have served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan since 2001, veterans who return home are among the highest percentage. They experience varying trauma, whether it’s psychological or physical, and pain can be trapped and remembered in the body on a cellular level, sometimes referred to as the emotional “Pain-Body.” This helps to explain the “phantom limb” phenomenon.

But musculoskeletal pain, or chronic pain, among veterans is diagnosed most frequently. The study in Washington incorporated meditation with an Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra (iRest) program, a researched based practice that uses deep relaxation techniques.

EurekAlert has more on the new study:

“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, and lead author of the new study.

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 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.

So how does it work? In 2014, Fadel Zeiden, an Associate Director of Neuroscience at the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine told the Atlantic, “Meditation teaches patients how to react to the pain.” He explained that meditation teaches the practitioner that like thoughts, pain is also fleeting. It is how we react to our pain emotionally that can often worsen how intense that pain might feel. “People are less inclined to have the ‘Ouch’ reaction, then they are able to control the emotional reaction to pain,” he said.

Read the full report on the effects of meditation on chronic pain from The Atlantic: 

Millions of Americans live with chronic pain. The Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, conducted in 2008, approximated 100 million adults are affected by pain, including joint pain and arthritis. Other studies, discounting joint pain and arthritis, estimate chronic pain prevalence at around 15 percent of American adults.

In hundreds of studies conducted over the past decade, researchers have examined meditation’s effects on people, such as attention regulation, awareness of the body, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction. Scientists have also studied the use of meditation as a treatment for pain. In these studies, meditation has been shown to help pain, sometimes significantly, though not cure it.

There are at least 12 disorders, such as phantom limb pain or atypical facial pain, where pain occurs in the absence of tissue damage.

As more organizations like the Give Back Yoga Foundation offer holistic modalities to recovering veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts choose free yoga over alcohol, it is becoming increasingly evident that alternative coping mechanisms are a more sustainable way to deal with psychological and physical trauma endured in military service. We applaud science for recognizing that there are other ways aside from drugs (though sometimes, these are still required) to feel a little bit better, and find a lot more peace.

AndreaRiceNewHeadshotAndrea Rice is the Practice and Community Editor for Wanderlust Media. She is also a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, SONIMA, mindbodygreen, and a variety of online magazines. Her teaching style is a blend of her love for music and intuitive movement, with emphasis on core strength. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center in Brooklyn, and often as a guest teacher for Deep House Yoga. Connect with Andrea on Instagram and Twitter.