Meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain, according to new research published in 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, demonstrating a (HUGE!) 40% reduction in pain intensity and a 57 per cent reduction in pain unpleasantness.
In 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 MRI scan. 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 1200 Fahrenheit 49 0 C, a temperature that most people find painful.
The scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area were very high.
The scans taken after meditation training showed that every participant’s pain rating was reduced, with decreases ranging from 11% to 93%.
AND, when participants were meditating during the scans, activity in this important pain-processing region could not be detected (AT ALL!!)
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; while increasing brain activity 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).
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.
The authors believe that meditation has great potential for clinical use because so little training was required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects.
Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25%.
The 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.