At Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, doctor’s orders can include an unlikely prescription: meditation.
“I recommend five minutes, twice a day, and then gradually increase,” said Aditi Nerurkar, a primary-care doctor and assistant medical director of the Cheng & Tsui Center for Integrative Care, which offers alternative medical treatment at the Harvard Medical School-affiliated hospital. “It’s basically the same way I prescribe medicine. I don’t start you on a high dose right away.” She recommends that patients eventually work up to about 20 minutes of meditating, twice a day, for conditions including insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome.
Integrative medicine programs including meditation are increasingly showing up at hospitals and clinics across the country. Recent research has found that meditation can lower blood pressure and help patients with chronic illness cope with pain and depression. In a study published last year, meditation sharply reduced the risk of heart attack or stroke among a group of African-Americans with heart disease.
At Beth Israel Deaconess, meditation and other mind-body therapies are slowly being worked into the primary-care setting. The program began offering some services over the past six months and hopes eventually to have group meditation classes, said Dr. Nerurkar.
Health experts say meditation shouldn’t be used to replace traditional medical therapies, but rather to complement them. While it is clear that “when you breathe in a very slow, conscious way it temporarily lowers your blood pressure,” such techniques shouldn’t be used to substitute for medications to manage high blood pressure and other serious conditions, said Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health. In general, she said, meditation can be useful for symptom management, not to cure or treat disease.
Dr. Briggs said the agency is funding a number of studies looking at meditation and breathing techniques and their effect on numerous conditions, including hot flashes that occur during menopause. If meditation is found to be beneficial, it could help women avoid using hormone treatments, which can have detrimental side effects, she said.
Martha O’Boyle, a 51-year-old in Fremont, Calif., has suffered from chronic pain in her arms, chest and elsewhere since suffering from a heart attack two years ago.
“Here’s a cardiologist telling me to go and meditate,” said Ms. O’Boyle. “I’m thinking, does she think I’m crazy?”
Ms. O’Boyle began taking meditation classes at Stanford Hospital & Clinics in 2011. The eight-week class consisted of once-a-week sessions lasting two to three hours. “Once I started the class I saw the benefits of it,” she said. Now, Ms. O’Boyle meditates every day for 20 to 45 minutes. “The pain is not gone, but it helps me cope with it,” she said.