Meditation Changes Brain Activity to Reduce Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Mindfulness meditation significantly reduces both physical and emotional pain, according to a new placebo controlled study that used MRI imaging to document changes in the brain that occur during meditation.

"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," said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC.

Zeidan and his colleagues enrolled 75 healthy volunteers in the study and used a thermal heat probe on their skin to test their reaction to pain. The probe was heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Centigrade) – a level most people find painful. Participants were then asked to rate the pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response).

Those who had undergone mindfulness meditation reported their physical pain was reduced by 27 percent and the unpleasantness by 44 percent.

In contrast, volunteers who had used a placebo analgesic cream before the heat probe test said their physical pain was reduced by 11 percent and their emotional pain by 13 percent.

The participants' brains were also scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before and after the heat probe experiment.  

"The MRI scans showed for the first time that mindfulness meditation produced patterns of brain activity that are different than those produced by the placebo cream," said Zeidan.

Mindfulness meditation activated brain regions (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with the self-control of pain; while the placebo cream lowered pain levels by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas (secondary somatosensory cortex).

Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation. The thalamus serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach other parts of the brain. By deactivating this area, researchers say, mindfulness meditation may cause signals about pain to simply fade away.

Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than a placebo sham meditation. The placebo-meditation group had relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9%) and pain unpleasantness (24%).

"This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation," Zeidan said. "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. However, given that the present study examined healthy, pain-free volunteers, we cannot generalize our findings to chronic pain patients at this time."

The Wake Forest study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience,

In addition to relieving pain, there is increasing evidence that meditation and mindfulness cognitive therapy are effective in treating a broad range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and stress.

One study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that online mindfulness courses were often just as effective as face-to-face meetings with a therapist.

You can sample a relaxing online pain management meditation at (click here to see it). The initial course is free.