Meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain, according to new research published in the April 6 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.
A recent study, conducted at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, took a small group of healthy medical students completely new to meditation and gave them four, 20-minute training sessions on “mindfulness meditation” a technique adapted from a Tibetan Buddhist form of meditation called shamatha (acknowledging and letting go of distraction).
“You are trying to sustain attention in the present moment – everything is momentary so you dont need to react ... what that does healthwise is it reduces the stress response”, said [lead study author Dr Fadel Zeidan].
After subjecting the group to a distracting bit of pain – a small, thermal heating devise applied to the right calf – the group were given special brain scans (called arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging – ASL MRI) to monitor brain activity. When subject to pain under normal conditions the region of the primary somatosensory cortex lit up.
So how effective was the meditation on easing pain?
“We found a big effect – about a 40 per cent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 per cent reduction in pain unpleasantness,” said Dr. Fadel Zeidan.
“Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 per cent.”
Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has great potential for clinical use because so little training was required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects. “This study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications,” Zeidan said.