Healing Focus Reports Mixed on Therapeutic Value of Meditation

A study conducted at the University of Alberta suggests that the medical benefits of meditation are limited at best.

“There is an enormous amount of interest in using meditation as a form of therapy to cope with a variety of modern-day health problems, especially hypertension, stress, and chronic pain, but the majority of evidence that seems to support this notion is anecdotal, or it comes from poor quality studies,” reported Maria Ospina and Kenneth Bond, the researchers at the university’s Capital Health Evidence-based Practice Center in Edmonton, Canada.

In compiling their report, Ospina, Bond, and their fellow researchers analyzed a mountain of medical and psychological literature — 13 studies in all — looking at the impact of meditation on conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and substance abuse.

They found some evidence that certain types of meditation reduce blood pressure and stress in clinical populations. Among healthy individuals, practices such as yoga seemed to increase verbal creativity and reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

However, Ospina said no firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in health care can be drawn based on the available evidence because the existing scientific research is characterized by poor methodological quality and does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective.

“Future research on meditation practices must be more rigorous in the design and execution of studies and in the analysis and reporting of results,” she added.

Yet, at the same time, other studies give weight to the therapeutic benefits of certain types of meditation.

Indeed, a contemporaneous study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that practicing even small doses of daily meditation may improve focus and performance.

In that study, researchers found that even for those new to the practice, meditation enhanced performance and the ability to focus attention. Performance-based measures of cognitive function demonstrated improvements in a matter of weeks.

And yet another study, this one conducted at the University of Kentucky, suggests that transcendental meditation (TM) is an effective treatment for controlling high blood pressure, with the added benefit of bypassing possible side effects and hazards of anti-hypertension drugs.

Keeping an Open Mind

But even the University of Alberta researchers caution against dismissing the therapeutic value of meditation outright.

“This report’s conclusions shouldn’t be taken as a sign that meditation doesn’t work,” Bond said. “Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. For medical practitioners who are seeking to make evidence-based decisions regarding the therapeutic value of meditation, the report shows that the evidence is inconclusive regarding its effectiveness.”

For the general public, adds Ospina, “this research highlights that choosing to practice a particular meditation technique continues to rely solely on individual experiences and personal preferences, until more conclusive scientific evidence is produced.”

The Alberta report focuses on five broad categories of meditation practices: mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. Transcendental meditation and relaxation response (both of which are forms of mantra meditation) were the most commonly studied types of meditation. Studies involving yoga and mindfulness meditation were also common.

Adapted from materials provided by the University of Alberta and other reports.

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