By Ross Walker

There appears to be a constant need for elements of conservative medicine to undermine any therapy that doesn’t involve a script or a scalpel.

As I have said on numerous occasions, strong medicine has strong effects but it also has strong side effects and complications. Complementary medicine, on the other hand, is typically not as effective, but also, in the vast majority of cases, has many more side effects and complications. Conservative medicine demands evidence based trials for all therapies. Whilst I believe this is important for the stronger, orthodox therapies, I believe it is not valid to expect the same level of evidence for complementary medicine.

To make the analogy in transport, I see orthodox medicine like a high performance motor car. It gets you from A to B very quickly and effectively but with the potential for crashing and killing yourself on rare occasions. Complementary medicine however is more like a bicycle. It will get you from A to B much slower but you will get some exercise along the way. Clearly we don’t need to same rules for the car and the bicycle because the consequence of car use has with it so many more dangers. Complementary medicine is much gentler but also takes much longer to demonstrate benefits, just like the above analogy.

One aspect of complementary medicine, however, that does have enormous benefits and associated evidence based trials, is meditation. The best studied being mindfulness meditation. For example, there are a number of evidence based studies regarding the enormous cardiovascular benefits of transcendental meditation showing up to a 50% reduction in vascular events in people who regularly practice this form of meditation.

Most recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, an American study looked at 75 healthy, pain free participants who were randomly assigned to one out of four groups. The first, mindfulness meditation, second, placebo meditation (basically relaxation), the third, placebo pain relief cream and the fourth, a control group with no placebo. Pain was induced with a thermal probe to heat a small area of the skin to 49 degrees Celsius. The study participants rated the pain intensity in terms of the physical intensity of pain and the emotional unpleasantness of the pain. All participants had their brain scanned with MRI after four days of the various group interventions. When the mindfulness meditation was compared with the control there was a 27% reduction in physical pain and a 44% reduction in emotional unpleasantness. With the placebo meditation there was a 9% reduction in pain, 24% reduction in unpleasantness and the placebo cream 11% reduction in pain and 13% reduction in emotional unpleasantness. This was all compared with the control group. The brain scans confirmed that mindfulness meditation showed very different patterns of brain activity compared with all the placebo groups.

The conclusion of the study was that as little as four 20 minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could markedly enhance pain therapy. Mindfulness has been defined as regulated, sustained attention in the moment to moment quality and character of sensory, emotional and cognitive events along with recognition of such events as momentary fleeting and changeable. It also involves the constant lack of emotional or cognitive appraisal and or reactions to these events.

To me, it is clear that a regular meditative practice, especially involving mindfulness, is an important method to not only help pain management, maintain a healthy cardiovascular and immune system but it also leads to a much happier, more contented and calmer person.

It is my firm belief that if all the world’s population had a regular practice of mindfulness meditation, we wouldn’t be experiencing the dreadful traumas we have witnessed for so many centuries.