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Meditation More Powerful Than Drugs For Pain Management

April 6, 2011

A study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience finds that meditation can deliver powerful pain-relieving effects to the brain, even with just 80 minutes of training for a beginner using an exercise called focused attention, AFP reports.

Fadel Zeidan Ph.D, lead author of the study explained, “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.”

“We found a big effect — about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent,” Zeidan, from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, added.

Fifteen volunteers who had never meditated took four 20-minute sessions to learn how to control breathing and ignore emotions and thoughts for the lessons. Brain activity was monitored with a special type of magnetic resonance imaging called “arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging” (ASL MRI) and recorded before and after the sessions.

ASL MRI is able to give more precise readings on longer duration brain processes, such as meditation, over a standard MRI scan.

A device was placed on the participants’ right legs, heating a small area of their skin to 120° F, a temperature that most people find painful, but not damaging, over a five-minute period. Scans taken after meditation training showed that every participant’s pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent, Zeidan told the Telegraph.

The meditation was also shown to significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.

Scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high. Participants who were meditating during the scans, showed no detection of activity in this important pain-processing region.

The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex. This is where the brain stores its experience of pain and comes up with coping mechanisms.

“Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced. 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.”

“We found a big effect ““ about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent,” said Zeiden.

With so little training required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects, Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has great potential for clinical use. “This 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,” Zeidan said.

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