Powers of the Mind 2 : Preparation for Surgery

In our last post we discussed the case of a woman who volunteered to take a drug that has many of the same effects that are produced by adrenalin, the “fight or flight response.” A central feature of this response is faster, stronger heartbeats. As expected, heartbeats increased as volunteers were given increasing dosages of the drug, and the heart rate increased with each increase of drug dosage. Remarkably, the heart rate of the woman at the center of that post suddenly began dropping at about half-way through the study. It continued to slow to the end of the study.

When asked what happened at the unexpected turning point, she said she was a self-taught meditator and had become bored, so started to meditate. The meditation was able to override the powerful effects of the fight or flight reaction. What she did was far enough away from normal expectations that the researchers published a follow-up article focused entirely on this remarkable performance.

Obviously, we shouldn’t make too much out of this work because it involves only one person. It is remarkable, but a very weak basis for a discussion of the “powers of the mind” in general.

There have been many reports of remarkable bodily control on the part of people who had devoted a great deal of their lives engaged in training to have unusual control of mind over body. For example, the Swami Rama was studied at the Menninger Clinic, and was able to do things such as making one part of his hand warm up while cooling a nearby part. He also showed that he could voluntarily stop his heart from pumping. This is impressive, but falls short of scientifically controlled studies with large samples of participants tested.

Many published studies meet these requirements. One interesting category is focused on mind-body techniques for preparing people for surgery. There are several meta-analyses of data from thousands of patients. (Meta-analysis refers to using sophisticated statistical methods for combining the results of many studies. They tell us whether the interventions had a statistically significant effect and how large that effect was.)

These studies have examined the effects of mind-body preparation on a variety of post-surgical outcomes. Here are examples:

1. How many pain pills were needed?

2. What was the emotional state, e.g.  Anxiety level, of the patient?

3. How long before the patient was able to leave the hospital?

4. How long did it take the patient to recover?

5. How much blood did the patient lose?

In general, studies using these outcomes as their measure of success indicate that mind-body interventions lead to statistically significant positive changes. The desirable effects tend to range from small to moderate. That doesn’t sound like much, but they tend to be outcomes that most of us would gladly seek if we were facing surgery.

Particularly interesting are the changes in blood loss during spinal surgery. There is a tendency to lose a lot of blood during such surgery.

A method that involves deep relaxation, suggestion, and guided imagery reduced the average loss by almost a half. We intend to give more details about that method in a later post. The technique is applicable to  many issues other than blood loss.

Note: We are indebted to Henry Dreher’s excellent review of this topic, “Mind-body interventions for surgery: evidence and exigency”.  Advances in Mind-Body Medicine , 1998, 14, 165-234.


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