Patients who have back surgery, a procedure that can cause severe pain for weeks, may have a new relief option beyond narcotics: meditation.

In a study at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, a neurosurgeon has teamed up with a geriatrician who leads meditation classes to test whether the technique can lessen pain in spine-surgery patients and reduce the need for opioid painkillers, which can be highly addictive. The randomized trial trains patients in a simple form of meditation and asks them to practice it starting two weeks before their surgery and for six weeks after, using audiotapes to guide them.

Results of the study might not be available for at least a couple more years, as the researchers have so far signed up about half of the 50 participants they aim to recruit. Some of the patients who have tried meditation say it seems to make their pain more tolerable than they expected.

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“We are not hoping to replace the need for pain medication,” says Patricia Bloom, a clinical associate professor of geriatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “We are trying to understand, can you help people’s pain to resolve faster and can you make their need for narcotics less,” says Dr. Bloom, a co-investigator on the project with colleague Arthur Jenkins, an associate professor of neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery.

David Langer, chairman of neurosurgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City, says meditation can help reduce anxiety and stress, which can make pain worse. Still, “I would be surprised if it had a large impact on post-operative pain,” in part because many patients will find it difficult to commit themselves to meditate regularly after major surgery, he says.

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