Mindfulness meditation can bring greater significant and measurable pain relief, according to a new analysis.
The findings are the first to show that patterns of brain activity produced by mindfulness meditation differ from those produced by a placebo cream.
Meditation-related pain reduction is now a rapidly emerging field. Scientific literature has long reported the subjective benefits of mindfulness meditation and related activities such as prayer, on pain – especially in those who are well practiced in the technique.
Sophisticated brain imaging technology is revealing more about how the brain responds to a meditative state.
These studies report that mindfulness meditation – which helps practitioners bring focused awareness to their breathing and to observe their thought processes without criticism or judgement – has been found to improve a range of conditions including anxiety, depression and stress.
It is associated with enhanced control of one’s thoughts, better regulation of emotions and mood and self-acceptance all of which have been linked with better self-regulation of pain.
Learning to control pain
For the current study lead author Fadel Zaidan, PhD, and colleagues at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, took 75 healthy, pain-free participants and induced pain by heating a small area of the skin to 120.2 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Centigrade) – a level of heat most people find very painful.
Participants then rated their physical responses (pain intensity) as well as their emotional ones (how unpleasant the pain was).
The participants were then randomly assigned to one of four groups: a 4 day course on mindfulness meditation, 40 minutes of instruction on relaxation (which the researchers called ‘placebo’ meditation, a placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly) or no treatment.
After completing the courses the researchers once again induced pain and monitored people’s responses with a brain scan.
More powerful than morphine
In the mindfulness meditation group, pain intensity fell by 27% and the emotional aspect of pain fell by 44%.
The placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11% and emotional aspect by 13%. In the relaxation group, a 9% decrease in pain rating and 24% in pain unpleasantness was noted, possibly due to a relaxation effect associated with slower breathing.
Past research has indicated that the opioid morphine reduces physical pain by 22% – so mindfulness had a more powerful effect.
But the brain scans, which showed how pain was registering in their brains, showed that those who in the mindfulness meditation group seemed to be using different brain regions than the other groups to reduce pain.
Stimulating new areas of the brain
In this study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex brain regions, associated with the self-control of pain; while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in the secondary somatosensory cortex, or pain-processing areas.
The thalamus was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but activated during all other conditions. The thalamus serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centres. By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away, the team suggests.
“Based on our findings, we believe that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment in a clinical setting,” say Zaidan
Though he cautions that the participants in this study were healthy, pain-free volunteers, and that results for those suffering from chronic pain may be different. However reviews of the research suggest that even for those with chronic pain mindfulness can help manage some of the associated effects of chronic pain such as depression and anxiety.