According to a new study meditation may help in reducing pain. For the study researchers mildly burned 15 men and women in a lab on two separate occasions, before and after the volunteers attended four 20-minute meditation training sessions over the course of four days. During the second round, when the participants were instructed to meditate, they rated the exact same pain stimulus - a 120-degree heat on their calves - as being 57 percent less unpleasant and 40 percent less intense, on average.
Fadel Zeidan, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina said, “That's pretty dramatic.” The reduction in pain ratings was substantially greater than those seen in similar studies involving placebo pills, hypnosis, and even morphine and other painkilling drugs, he added.
The findings appear in the April 6 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. Past research has found that Buddhist-style meditation -- also known as mindfulness meditation -- can help people cope with pain, anxiety, and a number of other physical and mental health problems. But in most cases the training takes weeks, not days as in this study.
The fact that Zeidan and his colleagues achieved these results after just 80 minutes of training is “spectacular,” says Robert Bonakdar, the director of pain management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, in San Diego. “Although the full benefits of meditation can be realized after long-term training, our study suggests that some of the effects can be realized just for your average Joe,” Zeidan says.
The type of meditation used in the study is known as Shamatha, or “focused attention.” Like other forms of mindfulness meditation, it entails learning how to observe what's going on in one's mind and body without judging, and while maintaining focus on one's breathing or a chanted mantra. Brain scans conducted during the pain experiments showed that this technique appeared to cause a number of changes in how the participants' brains responded to pain. Before meditation training, the area corresponding to the right calf was quite active when the heat was applied to the volunteers. But there was little activity in this region when they were meditating, which suggests that “meditation reduces pain by reducing the actual sensation,” Zeidan said. Scans taken after meditation training showed that all of the volunteers' pain ratings were reduced, with drops from 11 to 93 per cent, Zeidan said.
The conventional wisdom has been that meditation relieves pain not by diminishing sensation but by helping people consciously control their perception of pain, says Katharine MacLean, , a meditation researcher and postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. However, she says, the brain scans make it clear that both processes take place: Mediation changes the nature of pain before it's perceived and also allows people to better handle it. “Meditation is really kind of retuning your brain,” MacLean says.