Demystifying meditation -- brain imaging illustrates how meditation reduces pain

April 5, 2011, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center

Meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain, according to new research published in the April 6 edition of 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 ," said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

"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 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.

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 percent, 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 in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the 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, Ph.D., 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. 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 produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their without medications," Zeidan said.

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6 comments

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thewhitebear
3 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
the power of the brain is endless. who would've thought an ancient technique would outperform the best of modern science?
Vreejack
3.4 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
"the power of the brain is endless" is a non-sequitur. What we have here is an example of individuals taking conscious control of something that is happening in their own brains. This does not mean that people have the power to use their brains to take control of things outside their bodies, unless it involves moving their arms and legs.
random
5 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
Skills like meditation need to be worked into our life sciences programs and taught in schools. Just because the technique was pioneered by a religious movement doesn't mean it should be marginalized in secular society.
slash
5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
I once learned a technique to relax that seems to be very similar to what is described here. Since then I've used it successfully to distract myself when expecting pain, for example at the dentist.

The main point is to breath slowly, consciously and systematically relax all your muscles, and then focus on imagining a pleasant scene. The first two counteract the effects of stress, the last helps keeping the focus you achieved.

I've also found that looking into the eyes of the dentists beautiful assistent and holding her gaze works just as well. :)

Distraction is the key.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
These guys have never tried to meditate with a migraine...

Maybe your average little aches and pains sure I'll go along with that. Yeah it's all great and stuff, but it's NOT even close to replacing the pharmacy for intractable pain...not even close.
Tyzenstein
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
the power of the brain is endless. who would've thought an ancient technique would outperform the best of modern science?


The subjective experience of consciousness is notoriously hard to pin down with objective science. While there is a lot of evidence CORRELATING brain activity with things that are easily observable to outside viewers, like larger brains in humans than other creatures being associated with higher cognitive function, activity in the brain hasn't been established as the CAUSE of consciousness.

Neuroscientists are trying to figure out consciousness, assuming it arises from biology, which follows the rules of chemistry, which follows the rules of physics (quantum physics). Quantum physicists were forced to include the observer in the actions of particles.

consciousness->biology->chemistry->physics->consciousness seems a little fishy.

Allright. I'm gunna go kill some pain with my mind.

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