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Your Brain on Meditation: Reducing Pain

April 14, 2011

Pain management has long been touted as one of the many holistic health benefits of meditation, but now there’s new research that tells us even novices can dramatically reduce pain and pain-related brain activation after just an hour of meditation training.

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center used a special type of brain imaging to record the brain activity of a small group of healthy medical student volunteers who had attended four 20-minute training sessions on “mindfulness meditation” — a technique focused on acknowledging and letting go of distraction, which reduces the stress response.

The volunteers were then subjected to pain via a small thermal stimulator (heated to 120 degrees), which was applied to the back of each volunteer’s right calf. The students reported on the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain.

After going through the meditation training, the volunteers reported a 40 percent decrease in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness.

But perhaps even more interesting were the changes in brain activity.

Here’s the nitty-gritty from NPR.org’s Health Blog:

Every part of the body is mapped to a specific part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex. “If I touch you on your left hand right above your left knuckle, there is an area in the brain that corresponds to that specific area in your hand that will be activated,” [neuroscientist and the study’s lead author] Fadel Zeidan explains. “When you are in pain it is much more activated — more intense and more widespread.”

This activation shows up on MRI brain scans. When subjects experienced the heat stimulus under normal conditions, the “right calf” part of the primary somatosensory cortex lit up. But after the subjects were trained in meditation, the activity in this region was not even detectable.

Brain images also show that meditation increased activation in areas of the brain related to cognitive control and emotion — areas where the experience of pain is built. What’s more, better meditators (those who scored higher on a standard scale of mindfulness) tended to have more activation in these areas and a lower experience of pain.

But can you achieve similar results by just approximating meditation, or believing you are in control of your pain tolerance? Zeidan says probably not. In this study, subjects who paid attention to their breathing to mimic meditation saw no significant change in pain. And, in a previous study, subjects given fake training failed to see meditation’s effects, even though they believed they were actually performing mindfulness meditation.

Zeidan says he will run some more studies to get at how meditation relieves pain. He hopes meditation can soon be applied clinically, perhaps to help patients cope with pain after surgery or chemotherapy.

“You might not need extensive training to realize pain-relief benefits,” Zeidan says. “Most people don’t have time to spend months in a monastery.”

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