Meditation Cuts Pain Even Better Than Most Drugs – New Brain Scans Show How

Scans taken before meditation training showed activity in a brain area crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is, but when participants were meditating no activity could be detected.

Meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain – actually more potent than pain relieving drugs – according to new research published Apr 6 by the Journal of Neuroscience.
“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,” says lead author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, a research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
“We found a big effect – about a 40% reduction in pain intensity and a 57% reduction in pain unpleasantness,” Dr. Zeidan explains.

“Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25%.”

For the study, 15 healthy 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.(1)
Special Type of Imaging Reveals Effect

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 showed that every participant’s pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11% to 93% Dr. Zeidan said.
At the same time, meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.

The scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high. However, when participants were meditating during the scans, activity in this important pain-processing region could not be detected.
The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the:
• Anterior cingulate cortex,
• Anterior insula, and
• Orbito-frontal cortex.

“These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body,” said Robert C. Coghill, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist.

“Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced,” he adds. “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 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,” Dr. Zeidan believes.

Funding for the study was provided by the Mind and Life Institute in Boulder, Colorado  (co-founded by the Dalai Lama), and the Center for Biomolecular Imaging at Wake Forest Baptist.


1. For a simple guide on focused attention meditation using the breath, see Dr. William Collinge’s article “The Healing Power of Deep Relaxation – Simple, Proven Techniques for Calming Your Mind and Body.”
Source: Wake Forest Baptist news release, Apr 6, 2011

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