Meditation is a way of producing the “relaxation response,” which has been described extensively by Dr. Herbert Benson at the Harvard Medical School and The Mind/Body Medical Institute. The relaxation response is a state of relaxation that is associated with decreased anxiety, muscle relaxation, and lowering of blood pressure. It is believed to be the opposite of the physiologic response known as the “fight-or-flight response,” characterized by the activation or stimulation of multiple body processes, such as increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.

There are many different meditation methods. All of these techniques elicit relaxation by focusing concentration, relaxing the body, and diverting attention from stressful thoughts and feelings. One of the simplest strategies is outlined by Dr. Herbert Benson in The Relaxation Response:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position in a quiet room and close your eyes.
  2. Relax your muscles by starting with the feet and slowly working up the body to the face.
  3. Each time you exhale, say a word silently.
  4. Try to avoid distracting thoughts.
  5. Continue this process for 10 to 20 minutes.

Other, more formal, meditation methods include transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation (or vipassana), and meditation techniques associated with Zen (the Chinese word for meditation) and yoga. The relaxation response may also be produced by hypnosis, guided imagery, biofeedback, and prayer, all of which are discussed in detail elsewhere in this book.

Studies in MS and Other Conditions

No studies have formally evaluated the effects of meditation in a large number of people with MS. In one study of 40 people, 9 of whom had MS, meditation along with imagery decreased both anxiety and physical complaints during the physical rehabilitation process (1).

Other research studies have examined meditation effects on symptoms that may occur with MS but have involved people with conditions other than MS. It has been found that meditation may improve stress, anxiety, depression, and various types of pain, including low back pain and pain that occurs after surgery. Although difficult to study formally, feelings of control, empowerment, and self-esteem may develop through meditation. Progressive muscle relaxation, a specific process sometimes used in meditation, may improve insomnia.

Interestingly, meditation and other relaxation methods may produce changes in immune function. Various immune system changes have been described. The precise effects and their impact on MS are not fully understood at this time.

An interesting example of the influence of meditation on immune function was described in a 1985 report (2). A woman experienced in an Eastern religious–type of meditation was given small skin injections of a component of the chickenpox virus. Because she had been exposed to the virus previously, she had, as expected, an immune response to the injection that involved inflammation and redness of skin. Subsequently, she was told to use her meditation skills to attempt to decrease the injection response for a three-week period. For each week during that time, her skin reaction was reduced and the activity of her immune cells was decreased.

Meditation has been investigated in a number of other medical conditions. It may improve psoriasis (a skin condition), decrease seizure frequency, reduce blood pressure, and improve heart function in people with heart disease. Meditation has also produced some beneficial results in studies of heroin, cocaine, and nicotine addiction.

Side Effects

Meditation does not usually involve any serious risks. It may produce difficulties in people with serious psychiatric diseases, such as severe depression and schizophrenia. The state of relaxation elicited by meditation may produce fear of losing control, disturbing thoughts, and anxiety. Meditation should not be used in place of conventional therapy to treat MS or serious MS-associated symptoms.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a technique frequently used in hypnosis as well as in meditation and other relaxation therapies. Although it is generally used to produce relaxation, guided imagery may be used for other purposes.

In guided imagery, an individual creates images that have specific effects on the mind and the body. For example, to produce a state of relaxation, one may imagine sitting in a tranquil location such as a beach or a mountain. These images may be visual but may also involve sounds, taste, and smells associated with a particular setting.

Most imagery sessions last 20 to 30 minutes. Books and audiotapes are available for additional instruction. Alternatively, a trained therapist may be used. More information about guided imagery may be obtained from The Academy of Guided Imagery, (, 30765 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 369, Malibu, California 90265, 800-726-2070.

Meditation is a type of “mind–body therapy,” a class of therapies that also includes biofeedback, hypnosis, and guided imagery. Meditation has been practiced in some form for thousands of years, especially in the context of religious practice. Also, meditation is one of several components of some CAM therapies, including Ayurveda (“transcendental meditation,” or TM) and traditional Chinese medicine.

Music Therapy

As its name implies, music therapy uses music to facilitate healing. This type of therapy has been practiced for thousands of years. It was used in some form in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. Singing and drumming are also components of shamanic and Native American healing.

In the United States, music therapy degrees were first granted in the 1940s. Conventional medicine has increasingly recognized music therapy over the past decade. In 1992, the United States Congress approved a $1 million dollar yearly budget for research and education on music therapy in elderly people. There are currently more than 5,000 music therapists in the United States.

In music therapy, people either create or listen to music. The appropriate form of therapy for a specific person is determined by a trained music therapist. Music therapy may be practiced on an individual basis or a group basis. Music is also sometimes used to facilitate imagery (see “Hypnosis and Guided Imagery”).

The mechanism by which music therapy may work is not known. Some of its benefits may be related to music-induced relaxation. In addition, for people with movement difficulties such as incoordination or walking disorders, music therapy may elicit “entrainment,” which essentially means that moving to the music makes movements more rhythmic, regular, and efficient.

Studies in MS and Other Conditions

Music therapy has undergone limited investigation. It has been studied for symptoms that may occur with MS. In general, these have been small clinical studies, and the conclusions therefore are not definitive.

Music therapy may have emotional and cognitive benefits. It has been shown to decrease anxiety in adults with heart disease and strokes and in children and adults undergoing surgery. Limited studies suggest that music therapy improves depression and decreases agitation and aggression in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Music also appears to improve cognitive function. It may facilitate learning in children and college students and may improve attention and concentration in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Physical symptoms may benefit from music therapy. Music therapy has been beneficial for walking unsteadiness and incoordination in children and in adults with stroke and Parkinson’s disease. It also lessens the effects of pain associated with labor, cancer, arthritis, and medical and dental procedures.

Side Effects

Music therapy is essentially risk-free, although excessive noise (greater than 90 decibels) may impair hearing and increase blood pressure.

More Information

More information about music therapy and qualified music therapists may be obtained from The American Music Therapy Association, ( ), 8455 Colesville Road, Suite 1000, Silver Spring Maryland, 20910, 301-589-3300