When stress sneaks into the body, it doesn’t confine itself to the mind. Back pain, insomnia, acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome are all physical manifestations of stress. In fact, up to 70% of a physician’s caseloads stem from stress-related problems, and in the U.S., they’re the third highest healthcare expenditure—right after heart disease and cancer.
But a little disciplined R&R may be able to cut into some of it, suggests a large new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. After people took an eight-week relaxation program, their use of clinical services dropped by 43% and they saved thousands of dollars in healthcare costs.
“We’ve had a lot of data over the years showing that this stuff helps people’s physiology, their heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation all the way down to the genetic level, but we haven’t really looked at it from the health-systems perspective,” says principal investigator Dr. James Stahl, section chief of general internal medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “If someone is feeling well and healthier, they wouldn’t want to use the emergency room as often, and the study really bore that out.”
Stahl and his team studied a mind-body medicine program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), called the Benson-Henry Institute’s Relaxation Response Resiliency Program. Using a large database pulling from a network of hospitals, including MGH and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, they looked at about four years’ worth of data from 4,400 people who received relaxation and resiliency training. The eight-week program, which meets weekly for about three hours, focuses on relaxation—through meditation, yoga and stress-reduction exercises—and resiliency-building, through social support, cognitive skills training and positive psychology.
After the intervention, the relaxation group used 43% fewer medical services than they had in the previous year. When the researchers did a second analysis comparing the relaxation group to a control group of people with identical medical-services usage rates at the beginning, the effect was still strong: a 25% drop in clinical services.
In cost, too, relaxing paid off. A standard mind-body class runs about $500, while a typical emergency room visit can cost $4,000 at the low end, Stahl says. The intervention group went to the emergency room less than the control group did, saving about $2,360 per patient each year. Overall, a relaxation intervention like this one would save anywhere from $640-$25,500 per patient each year, they estimate.
“Currently we’re in a system of a downward spiral,” says Stahl, citing the fee-for-service business model that puts pressure on physicians to see more patients in less time, leading to poorer care. But making people feel well reduces the demand on the healthcare system. “That in turn helps the providers not burn out and have more time to spend with their patients and do a better job,” Stahl says.
“There are many medical fads,” Stahl says. “What we’re trying to get down to: Is this real? Is it something that’s sustainable and reproducible? The answer is yes. Here the data is pretty unequivocal that doing these kinds of tools would really help you in terms of your health and wellness.”