Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Meditating could lead to drastic fall in diabetes pain, UAE professor says

Too many 'pill happy' doctors look solely to drug-based medication instead of treatments such as mindfulness, medic says

Nadia Hussain, a family physician and academic, has conducted a study which revealed an “amazing” drop in pain levels among women with diabetic neuropathy after they began meditating. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Nadia Hussain, a family physician and academic, has conducted a study which revealed an “amazing” drop in pain levels among women with diabetic neuropathy after they began meditating. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Diabetics with chronic pain should take up meditation, according to a UAE doctor whose research shows the practice can be highly effective in relieving symptoms.

Nadia Hussain, a family physician and academic, conducted a study which revealed an “amazing” drop in pain levels among women with diabetic neuropathy - nerve damage which can leave sufferers in agony – after they began meditating.

The study found that mindfulness meditation, which involves people remaining still, clearing their minds, focusing on breathing and being in the ‘present moment’, led to the largest fall in pain, almost 40 per cent on average, after 12 weeks.

I’ve seen patients cry when they’re putting their shoes on because it feels like their feet are on fire. Some of the symptoms are quite horrific

Dr Nadia Hussain

Members of another group who took up progressive relaxation meditation, a different technique in which participants contract and relax different muscles, had average pain scores fall by almost 30 per cent.

Dr Hussain, an assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy at Al Ain University, said that a “pill happy” mentality persisted within parts of the medical profession.

However, she said the results showed meditation, which carries none of the risks of pharmaceuticals, could also help patients and should be seen as a serious option for inclusion in pain treatment plans.

“Their pain scores reduced significantly, their satisfaction improved significantly, and they were willing to continue meditating,” she said of the study participants.

“I was expecting a reduction in pain scores, but I didn’t expect such a big change.

“Some doctors are focused so much on the biomedical side, but they forget that pain and disease are also social, psychological and emotional. So why focus on only one approach?”

Dr Hussain said she had practiced meditation herself for roughly eight years. She decided to pursue a scientific study after some of her own patients achieved relief from their symptoms after taking it up. Some diabetic neuropathy patients experience high levels of pain, which seriously affects their quality of life.

“I’ve seen patients cry when they’re putting their shoes on because it feels like their feet are on fire,” Dr Hussain said.

“Some of the symptoms are quite horrific.”

Although she is an advocate of meditation, she did not engage directly with the study participants to ensure there was no bias. The findings have been peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine.

 Nadia Hussain, an academic and physician, has benefited from meditation and has proved it can be an effective treatment for chronic pain in diabetes patients. Pawan Singh.
Nadia Hussain said meditation can be an effective treatment for chronic pain in diabetes patients. Pawan Singh / The National

However, she fears that some will continue not to take meditation seriously as a medical option, due to what she sees as its bad reputation.

Even her own 67-year-old father, she admitted, was a sceptic.

“My own dad thinks these are hippies’ practices,” said the 40-year-old, who was born in Pakistan but moved to the UAE when she was a baby.

“But then he started seeing the benefits in me, noticed I was much calmer, less excited, and could handle things much better. He hasn’t reached the stage of practicing himself but he no longer makes fun of me, so that’s big progress.”

The study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation, a technique that trains people to “accept their thoughts and feelings are transitory”, saw their pain scores drop on average by 39.7 per cent after 12 weeks.

Those taking part in the meditation attended 16 sessions over eight weeks with trained instructors. The drop among the progressive relaxation meditation group was 28.7 per cent.

A control group also attended sessions, but instead of meditating took part in talking therapies and were then told to relax as best as they could. There was no meaningful change in pain levels among this group after 12 weeks.

All of the patients continued with other treatments, such as painkillers, as normal. Pain levels were measured using established questionnaire tests. The 119 participants, who were divided equally into the three groups, were all female, aged over 55 and in Pakistan.

Dr Hussain, who meditates for 30 minutes every morning, now hopes her research will win over some of her colleagues, who she believes should be open to recommending patients try meditation, in addition to still offering traditional pain management methods.

“It seems a bit wishy-washy to some people. But there is evidence that when certain areas of the brain, responsible for pain processing, are activated that is when the patient experiences pain," she said.

"But meditation reduces activation in these areas, and it doesn’t lead to any less function.

“The tragedy is that this is such an effective technique but the classes and people teaching it are so few and far between.”

Other doctors expressed interest in Dr Hussain’s findings.

Sawsan Halawi, a clinical psychologist at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, described the results as “amazing” but warned that meditation would not relieve pain in all patients.

“It’s a matter related to personal health beliefs,” Dr Halawi said in reaction to the study.

“If I believe this meditation will help me, it will. If I don’t believe it will help me, it will never help.

“From my side, I definitely respect this field as a practice and the people that practice it. But we cannot generalise that meditation will help everyone.

“For diabetes chronic pain, yes it can help, because it helps us to control our minds, our emotions, to increase our positive thoughts. This, in turn, lowers our reactions to stress and improves coping skills to the illness.”

Updated: October 13, 2019 10:01 AM

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