Demystifying meditation — brain imaging illustrates how meditation reduces pain

April 6, 2011

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have shown that meditation produces a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness.

Fifteen healthy volunteers (who had never meditated) attended four 20-minute classes to learn a meditation technique known as “focused attention.” This is a form of mindfulness meditation where people are taught to attend to the breath and let go of distracting thoughts and emotions.

Both before and after meditation training, study participants’ brain activity was examined using arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) to capture longer duration brain processes. During these scans, a pain-inducing heat device was placed on each participant’s right leg. This device heated a small area of their skin to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that most people find painful, over a 5-minute period.

Scans taken after meditation training showed that the pain ratings for every participant were reduced.

At the same time, meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.

The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex, which shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals from the body. The more these areas were activated by meditation, the more that pain was reduced.

The decreases ranged from 11 to 93 percent, which is a greater reduction in pain than with morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, says researcher Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D.

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

Their work appears April 6 in The Journal of Neuroscience.