Meditation eases migraine pain

Center uses relaxation, acupuncture to complement conventional medical treatment

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For some, meditation can be a way to find inner peace, to connect with the mystical, or to find a more solemn way to pray.

But for Barbara Raco, of Mt. Lebanon, meditation has become a way to relieve the pain of severe migraine headaches.

Mrs. Raco was a student in a Mindfulness Meditation class offered by the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In the class, she learned to meditate by concentrating only on what is happening in the present.

The center, located in Shadyside, uses therapies such as relaxation and acupuncture to complement more conventional medicine to treat illnesses.

"Mindfulness Meditation is basically about paying attention to the present moment to whatever is happening in a non-judgmental manner," said Carol Greco, a clinical psychologist and faculty member of the psychiatry department at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The concept was developed by John Kabat-Zinn, a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s. The classes have been offered at the Center for Integrative Medicine since 2005.

Dr. Greco's speciality is helping people to deal with pain and the effects of chronic illnesses by using non-drug techniques such as meditation.

Dr. Greco said many of the people she sees in her classes live their lives "running around on automatic pilot. We pay attention to what we think. We let our mind control us. It makes us productive but there can be a health cost to that. Through living so much on auto pilot, we contribute to our own stress and physical tension levels," she said.

At the time she took the course, Mrs. Raco had been suffering with migraines for about 10 years. She had prescription medication to treat them, but she was looking for ways to deal with the headaches without popping pills.

Others in the class were looking for ways to control chronic pain or other side effects from chronic illnesses or to deal with stress, anxiety or sleeping disorders.

Mrs. Raco said as part of the class, participants were asked to meditate for 45 minutes each day during the eight weeks. Mrs. Raco said different methods of meditation were taught during the class, methods such as deep breathing, yoga, walking meditation. She found deep breathing worked best for her.

She started to meditate every morning before she started her day and found that over time she experienced fewer headaches and the ones she got weren't as painful as they had been.

She continues to meditate daily -- sometimes intervals as short as three minutes -- in order to stay calm. "For three minutes, you just close your door and do the deep breathing. It's learning how to quiet the mind," she said.

Mrs. Raco has found when she doesn't meditate, her symptoms start to come back.

"That's my personal way of knowing that life hasn't changed, but it's how I deal with it that has changed," she said.

Dr. Greco said her class simply helps people to find what's already inside of them.

"It's as though you come home to something that's always been there but been pushed to the background. It's a capacity for being peaceful, present and at ease no matter what is going on," Dr. Greco said.

A class on Mindfulness Meditation is starting on Tuesday in Shadyside, but it is already full. The next class will be offered sometime in February. The cost is $300. For more information go to integrativemedicine.upmc.com or call 412-623-3023.


Mary Niederberger can be reached at mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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