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Mindfulness Meditation May Help with Lower Back Pain

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Meditation practitioners have been saying for ages that practicing mindfulness can help relieve pain. The problem is that when you’re in pain, it can be very, very hard to relax. But in a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers say it may be worth the effort. Many participants in the researchers’ clinical trial found that mindfulness meditation helped alleviate their lower back pain.

Let’s make one thing clear right now. Meditation is not a cure for pain or disease. It is a way of relating to the body that can help relieve symptoms for some people, but it cannot magic away injury or illness. Chronic pain and illness are chronic for a reason: There is no current cure for the conditions behind them. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s continue.

There are many types of meditation, each with its own outlook and proponents. One of the most popular meditation practices in the U.S. during the past few decades is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Unlike other forms of meditation derived from ancient Eastern religious traditions, MBSR was developed in 1979 by a doctor specifically to help deal with stress. The program combines elements of mindfulness meditation and yoga, and has become a popular tool among medical practitioners, corporate HR programs, and even professional athletes.

Although meditation is popular for all the reasons mentioned above, Western medical practitioners have been slow to accept it as a legitimate form of treatment. These days, however, as report after report produces quantified evidence of meditation’s benefits, it’s getting harder to ignore.

Take this most recent study, a clinical trial involving 342 adults between the ages of 20 and 70. (Previous studies had tested how mindfulness affected pain in older adults, but never those in the 20–70 range.) At the time of enrollment, all of the participants had been experiencing lower back pain for at least three months.

The researchers wanted to know how mindfulness stacked up against other treatments, including a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The participants were divided into three groups, and each person was randomly assigned to a treatment protocol. Groups one and two were enrolled in eight weekly group sessions of either MBSR or CBT and were instructed to continue whatever they were already doing for their back pain. The third group, the control group, just kept doing what they were doing without any additional treatment.

Sure enough, mindfulness made a dent in participants’ pain. One month, two months, six months, and even one year after enrolling in the study, participants practicing mindfulness said they found a significant improvement in their pain—at least 30 percent.

Now, before you start stampeding to the meditation hall, we should mention that CBT was just as effective as meditation. But doctors already knew that CBT can help people manage, and therefore reduce, their pain. The news here is that meditation was just as good. Six months after the study started, 60.5 percent of participants in the MBSR group were still reporting improvements, as were 57.7 percent of the CBT group. The same was true for only 44.1 percent of the people who had only continued with their existing treatment plans.

"We are not saying 'It's all in your mind,'" lead author Dan Cherkin said in a press statement. "Rather, as recent brain research has shown, the mind and the body are intimately intertwined, including in how they sense and respond to pain." Cherkin noted that CBT and MBSR were as effective as, and safer than, other treatments patients were using.

"Our findings are important because they add to the growing evidence that pain and other forms of suffering involve the mind as well as the body," Cherkin said. "Greater understanding and acceptance of the mind-body connection will provide patients and clinicians with new opportunities for improving the lives of persons with chronic back pain and other challenging conditions that are not always effectively managed with physical treatments alone."

The researchers hope to expand their study to determine how these treatments fare on a longer-term basis.

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Why You Should Think Twice About Drinking From Ceramics You Made by Hand
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Ceramic ware is much safer than it used to be (Fiesta ware hasn’t coated its plates in uranium since 1973), but according to NPR, not all new ceramics are free of dangerous chemicals. If you own a mug, bowl, plate, or other ceramic kitchen item that was glazed before entering the kiln, it may contain trace amounts of harmful lead.

Earthenware is often coated with a shiny, ceramic glaze. If the clay used to sculpt the vessel is nontoxic, that doesn’t necessarily mean the glaze is. Historically, the chemical has been used in glazes to give pottery a glossy finish and brighten colors like orange, yellow, and red.

Sometimes the amount of lead in a product is minuscule, but even trace amounts can contaminate whatever you're eating or drinking. Over time, exposure to lead in small doses can lead to heightened blood pressure, lowered kidney function, and reproductive issues. Lead can cause even more serious problems in kids, including slowed physical and mental development.

As the dangers of even small amounts of lead have become more widely known, the ceramics industry has gradually eliminated the additive from its products. Most of the big-name commercial ceramic brands, like Crock-Pot and Fiesta ware, have cut it out all together. But there are still some manufacturers, especially abroad, that still use it. Luckily, the FDA keeps a list of the ceramic ware it tests that has been shown to contain lead.

Beyond that list, there’s another group of products consumers should be wary of: kiln-baked dishware that you either bought from an independent artist or made yourself. The ceramic mug you crafted at your local pottery studio isn’t subject to FDA regulations, and therefore it may be better suited to looking pretty on your shelf than to holding beverages. This is especially true when consuming something acidic, like coffee, which can cause any lead hiding in the glaze to leach out.

If you’re not ready to retire your hand-crafted ceramic plates, the FDA offers one possible solution: Purchase a home lead testing kit and analyze the items yourself. If the tests come back negative, your homemade dishware can keep its spot on your dinner table.

[h/t NPR]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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