How Meditation Reduces Pain

According to a new study, people who practice mindfulness meditation are able to access different brain regions to reduce pain. 

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A new study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found mindfulness meditation reduces emotional pain by 44% and pain intensity by 27%.

Dr. Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy, recruited 75 pain-free participants and scanned their brains in an MRI while exposing them to a 120-degree thermal probe. Afterwards, researchers sorted them into four groups for four days: a group that received mindfulness meditation training, another group that received a cream they were told would help with the pain from the heat, a group that received a “fake” mindfulness training where they were told to breathe for 20 minutes but were given no instruction, and a control group.

After four days, the groups re-entered the MRI and experienced the painful heat from the thermal probe—this time, armed with their new pain management regimen.

Breaking up participants into four groups allowed Zeidan to test if reported health outcomes from mindfulness were just a placebo. The trials showed that the mindfulness meditation group reported the strongest pain reduction. Additionally, compared to the other groups, those practicing mindfulness meditation also appeared to be using a different part of their brain.

From Time:

“There was something more active, we believe, going on with the genuine mindfulness meditation group,” Zeidan says. This group had increased activation in higher-order brain regions associated with attention control and enhanced cognitive control, he says, while exhibiting a deactivation of the thalamus—a structure that acts as the gatekeeper for pain to enter the brain, he explains. “We haven’t seen that with any other technique before.”