Mindfulness meditation trumps placebo in pain reduction

November 11, 2015, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center
A collective meditation in Sri Lanka. Image: Wikipedia.

Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have found new evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain more effectively than placebo.

This is significant because -controlled trials are the recognized standard for demonstrating the efficacy of clinical and pharmacological treatments.

The research, published in the Nov.11 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation reported greater pain relief than placebo. Significantly, brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation produced very different patterns of activity than those produced by placebo to reduce pain.

"We were completely surprised by the findings," said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study. "While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion."

The study used a two-pronged approach - pain ratings and brain imaging - to determine whether mindfulness meditation is merely a . Seventy-five healthy, pain-free participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation ("sham" meditation), placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly) or control.

Pain was induced by using a thermal probe to heat a small area of the participants' skin to 49 degrees Centigrade (120.2 degrees Fahrenheit), a level of heat most people find very painful. Study participants then rated pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response). The participants' brains were scanned with arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) before and after their respective four-day group interventions.

The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent and by 44 percent for the emotional aspect of pain. In contrast, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11 percent and emotional aspect of pain by 13 percent.

"The MRI scans showed for the first time that mindfulness meditation produced patterns of brain activity that are different than those produced by the placebo cream," Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating brain regions (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas (secondary somatosensory cortex).

Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but was activated during all other conditions. This brain region serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher centers. By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away, Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation. The placebo-meditation group had relatively small decreases in (9 percent) and pain unpleasantness (24 percent). The study findings suggest that placebo meditation may have reduced pain through a relaxation effect that was associated with slower breathing.

"This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation," Zeidan said.

"Based on our findings, we believe that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of could enhance in a clinical setting. However, given that the present study examined healthy, pain-free volunteers, we cannot generalize our findings to chronic patients at this time."

Explore further: Mindfulness program beneficial for chronic pain

Related Stories

Mindfulness program beneficial for chronic pain

April 9, 2015
(HealthDay)—A mindfulness program appears to be beneficial for patients with chronic pain, according to a study published in the April issue of Pain Medicine.

Researchers probing potential power of meditation as therapy

April 10, 2015
When Rebecca Erwin was a varsity rower at the University of North Carolina, the coach had the team's members take a yoga and meditation class. It had an impact.

Anxious? Activate your anterior cingulate cortex with a little meditation

June 4, 2013
Scientists, like Buddhist monks and Zen masters, have known for years that meditation can reduce anxiety, but not how. Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, however, have succeeded in identifying the brain functions ...

Can meditation decrease chronic pain?

October 23, 2013
A randomized controlled study published in the current issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics has investigated the role of a special form of meditation (mindfulness) in Chronic pain.

Suggests meditation may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression

January 6, 2014
Some 30 minutes of meditation daily may improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, a new Johns Hopkins analysis of previously published research suggests.

Recommended for you

Paraplegic rats walk again after therapy, now we know why

March 19, 2018
With the help of robot-assisted rehabilitation and electrochemical spinal cord stimulation, rats with clinically relevant spinal cord injuries regained control of their otherwise paralyzed limbs. But how do brain commands ...

New research into letter-spacing could help improve children's reading

March 19, 2018
Increased letter spacing helps individuals read faster, but not due to visual processing, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Decision-making is shaped by individual differences in the functional brain connectome

March 19, 2018
Each day brings with it a host of decisions to be made, and each person approaches those decisions differently. A new study by University of Illinois researchers found that these individual differences are associated with ...

Decoding the chemistry of fear

March 19, 2018
Ask a dozen people about their greatest fears, and you'll likely get a dozen different responses. That, along with the complexity of the human brain, makes fear—and its close cousin, anxiety—difficult to study. For this ...

Scientists locate nerve cells that enable fruit flies to escape danger

March 19, 2018
Columbia University researchers have identified the nerve cells that initiate a fly's escape response: that complex series of movements in which an animal senses, and quickly maneuvers away from, something harmful such as ...

Kids with severe brain injuries may develop ADHD: study

March 19, 2018
(HealthDay)—Young children who sustain a severe head injury may struggle with attention problems as they grow older, researchers say.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.