Meditation is a mind-body therapy that has been used for thousands of years, often in religious practices. It is in the same class of therapies as guided imagery, hypnosis, and biofeedback (see guided imagery, hypnosis, and biofeedback pages). Meditation is also used as one component of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine (see Ayurveda page).
Meditation can produce the relaxation response, a state in which the muscles relax, blood pressure lowers, and anxiety decreases. This is considered to be the opposite of the fight-or-flight response, in which breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure increase.
Many different forms of meditation exist. In general, all methods attempt to relax the body, focus concentration, and direct attention away from the everyday train of thoughts. Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School and The Mind/Body Medical Institute outlines a very simple meditation method in The Relaxation Response. He suggests beginning by sitting in a comfortable position in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Then, relax all of your muscles, starting from your feet and gradually moving up to the muscles in your face. Every time you breathe out, you should silently say a word. While meditating you should try to avoid distracting thoughts. This exercise should continue for ten to twenty minutes.
Beyond this simple technique, there are many more formal methods of meditation. These techniques include mindfulness meditation (vispassana), transcendental meditation, and yoga. Hypnosis, prayer, guided imagery, and biofeedback may also produce the relaxation response.
Evaluation in MS and Other Conditions
No large-scale studies concerning the effectiveness of meditation on people with MS have been conducted. In one small-scale study of people undergoing physical rehabilitation, researchers found that meditation and guided imagery decreased physical complaints and anxiety. Some of the people in this study had MS.
Research has been conducted looking at meditation in other medical conditions, which have symptoms that are also seen in MS. This work suggests that meditation may help with pain, stress, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Furthermore, meditation may aid in the development of empowerment, self-esteem, and feelings of control; however, these concepts are relatively difficult to formally study.
Meditation may also have some influence on immune function, but this relationship is not well understood. One example of this relationship is found in a 1985 report documenting a woman who was experienced in a form of Eastern religious meditation. Over the course of three weeks, she was able to use meditation to decrease the reactivity of her immune cells to repeated skin injection of a virus to which she had been previously exposed.
Meditation has also been found in some studies to improve psoriasis, blood pressure, and heart function, as well as help overcome addiction.
Meditation is considered to be a low-risk therapy. People with serious psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, depression, and severe anxiety, may have some adverse reactions to meditation. In these conditions, meditation may produce disturbing thoughts, anxiety, and a fear of losing control. Meditation may be useful as a supplement to treatment, but it should not be used instead of conventional medicine for treating MS or serious MS-associated symptoms.
Meditation is an inexpensive, generally safe, and possibly beneficial therapy. It may alleviate anxiety, stress, depression, pain, and insomnia. It may also promote feelings of control and an improved sense of self-esteem.
References and Additional Reading
Benson H. The Relaxation Response. New York: HarperTorch, 1976. Ernst E, ed. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-BasedApproach. Edinburgh: Mosby, 2001.
Bowling AC. Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2007, pp. 178-181.
Fugh-Berman A. Alternative Medicine: What Works. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1997:167–174.
Kabat-Zinn J. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 2005.
Rakel D. Recommending meditation. In: Rakel D, Faass N. Complementary Medicine in Clinical Practice. Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 2006.
Weintraub MI, Micozzi MS, eds. Alternative and Complementary Treatments in Neurologic Illness. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 2001.
Mandel Allan R, Keller Sandra M. Stress management in rehabilitation. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1986;67:375–379.
Smith GR, McKenzie JM, Marmer DJ, et al. Psychologic modulation of the human immune response to Varicella zoster. Arch Int Med 1985;145:2110–2112.
Zachariae R, Kristensen JS, Hokland P, et al. Effect of psychological intervention in the form of relaxation and guided imagery on cellular immune function in normal healthy subjects: an overview. Psychother Psychosom1990;54:32–39.