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Want to Reduce Pain? Try Meditation

Reported April 8, 2011


(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Since the 1960s, meditation has been the focus of increasing scientific research. In over 1,000 published research studies, various methods of meditation have been linked to changes in metabolism, blood pressure, brain activation, and other bodily processes. Now, meditation has been used in clinical settings as a method of stress and pain reduction.

"This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation," Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, was quoted as saying. "We found a big effect -- about a 40-percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57-percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25-percent."

For the study, 15 volunteers who had never meditated attended four, 20-minute classes to learn a meditation technique known as focused attention. Focused attention is a form of mindfulness meditation where people are taught to attend to the breath and let go of distracting thoughts and emotions.

Both before and after meditation training, study participants' brain activity was examined using a special type of imaging -- arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) -- that captures longer duration brain processes, such as meditation, better than a standard MRI scan of brain function. During these scans, a pain-inducing heat device was placed on the participants' right legs. This device heated a small area of their skin to 120 Fahrenheit, a temperature that most people find painful, over a 5-minute period.

The scans taken after meditation training demonstrated that each participant's pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent, Zeidan said.
At the same time, meditation drastically reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex -- an area that is significantly involved in creating the feeling of where and how extreme a painful stimulus is. The scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area was exceedingly high. Nevertheless, when participants were meditating during the scans, activity in this vital pain-processing region could not be detected.

The research moreover illustrated that meditation improved brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbitofrontal cortex.

"These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body," Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., senior author of the study and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist, was quoted as saying.

"Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced. One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing."

Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has immense potential for clinical use because so little training was required to produce such pain-relieving effects.

SOURCE: Journal of Neuroscience, April 6, 2011