Research out of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center provides evidence that mindfulness meditation can help reduce pain more effectively than placebo.  The research was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In this study, 75 healthy, pain-free subjects were randomized to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (“sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly) or control.  Pain was induced by using a thermal probe on the skin to 120.2 degrees Fahrenheit and study participants were asked to rate the pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response).  Brain scans were performed before and after their respective four-day group interventions.

Compared to the placebo cream, which reduced pain sensation by 11% and pain unpleasantness by 13%, the mindfulness meditation group reported a reduction of 27% in pain intensity and 44% in pain unpleasantness.  The placebo-meditation group reported relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9%) and pain unpleasantness (24%), a result most likely produced through a relaxation effect associated with slower breathing.

MRI scans also indicated that mindfulness meditation and placebo cream produced different patterns of brain activity, with placebo cream reducing activity in pain-processing areas, while mindfulness meditation was found to activate regions associated with self-control of pain. Also, the thalamus, while activated in all other conditions, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation.

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

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