The Brains of Meditators Respond Much Differently To Pain – Huge Implications

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In Brief

  • The Facts:
    • A 2015 study observed different physiological responses to pain by meditators compared to two placebo groups.

    • Brain scans were taken and results showed meditators experienced significantly less pain than all other groups.

    • Multiple studies were published that compliment these findings.

  • Reflect On:

    With so many positive findings with regards to meditation, and the plethora of applications it has for both mental and physical health, why is this intervention not widely used or taught to humans from a young age?

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In 2015, researchers from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center discovered that the brains of meditators respond much differently to pain than those who were given a placebo to reduce pain. This could have large implications for pain management.

Pain is not only one of the most common ailments but it can also extremely debilitating and expensive. Approximately 100 million Americans deal with pain daily, and most are currently turning to prescription painkillers. With some of these pain killers being addictive, it’s easy to see how abuse of meds could be common based on use and availability.

A lack of trust, side effects, and several other factors are why both doctors and patients are gravitating towards non pharmacological ways to help reduce pain and the toll it can take on one’s quality of life. Let’s not forget about that a popular treatment for pain is opioid based medication which in itself has caused one of the largest drug addiction problems in history.

Back to the study. Researchers found, via brain scans, that mindfulness meditation produced different activity in people’s brains in comparison to the placebo group, and much of this activity was linked to reduced pain.

Seventy-five perfectly healthy pain-free adults were randomly assigned into one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (a sort of “sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly), or control.

A thermal probe that heated a small area of the participants’ skin was used to induce pain. The temperature reached approximately 50 degrees Centigrade, a level of heat where most people experience pain. Not only were the participant’s brains scanned to detect pain, but a rating system was used to describe the level of pain participants were experiencing.

The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent physically and by 44 percent for the emotional aspect of pain. On the other hand, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11 percent and emotional aspect of pain by 13 percent.

We were completely surprised by the findings…While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion.

Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study.

The main “shocker” here was understanding the brain scans and how they produced different results depending on which intervention was used.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating brain regions (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with how we control pain ourselves. The placebo cream worked to lower pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas (secondary somatosensory cortex).

Interestingly, a part of the brain called the thalamus was deactivated during the meditation but was activated during all other conditions. Since this part of the brain determines what sensory information is reached the higher brain centers, deactivating this area may have allowed pain signals to fade away.

Complimenting the brain scans, participants stated that mindfulness meditation reduced pain intensity and unpleasantness compared to the other interventions.

“This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produced pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation.

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.”

Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study.

There is, however, one large limitation with the study. This study only examined healthy, pain free volunteers and used simulated pain. The study was not conducted on people who actually experience chronic pain, and this is why more research is needed on volunteers who suffer from chronic pain.

Meditation also induces the body’s own opioid system. A very small, randomized, double-blind study from 2016 used the opioid blocker naloxone, or a placebo, and studied pain reduction with meditation. The group with the placebo experienced significantly less pain than the group that had the opioid blocker.

2018 study of meditation, mindfulness, and the brain suggested that in the long term, meditation can change the structure of your brain. The resulting change in cortical thickness in some brain areas makes you less pain-sensitive.

There are a plethora of studies that are now available showing various physiological benefits of meditation. This is coupled with several mental health benefits as well. Various organs are implicated when it comes to meditation and health. For example, an eight week study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) determined that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s grey matter in just eight weeks.

Meditation may not only be used for physiological benefits in many ways, but it can also be used to access different states of consciousness and perhaps connect with aspects of our reality we have yet to accept as real.

There is more than enough evidence to suggest that meditation would be a great tool for humanity to start learning at a young age. How different would our world be if we were all taught to meditate from a young age and incorporated it into our daily routine?

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