Got a headache? A sore lower back? Maybe a nagging tooth ache? Instead of reaching for the medicine cabinet — again — try stilling your mind.
A new study published in “The Journal of Neuroscience” found doing a few 20-minute meditation sessions can significantly lower your sensitivity to pain. These powerful pain-relieving effects were felt by subjects who had never tried meditation before. For the study, each participant was taught a technique known as “focused attention,” when attention is focused on the breath while letting go of distracting thoughts and emotions.
Researchers found the meditation decreased pain intensity by 40 per cent and pain unpleasantness by 57. According to Fadel Zeidan, of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and lead author of the study, “Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 per cent.”
Pain was measured in the subjects using a special type of brain imaging scan called arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI). This type of imaging is used to capture long-duration brain processes, like meditation.
Both before and after meditation training, the subjects had their brains scanned while pain was inflicted using a small heat creating device placed on the right leg. The device heated an area of the skin to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes, enough to cause pain in most people, but not enough to inflict damage. Brain scanning after the meditation training showed pain ratings reduced from at least 11 per cent to as high as 93 per cent.
Meditation seems to work by activating or inhibiting specific areas in the brain. In this study, meditation was found to significantly reduce brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex. This area of the brain is involved in communicating the location and intensity of a painful stimulus. While scans taken before the meditation showed a great deal of activity in this area, during the meditation this area was essentially silent.
Meditation also increased brain activity in other areas of the brain. These areas include the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex. According to Robert C. Coghill, senior author of the study, these areas of the brain are used to “build an experience” of pain, which are coming from nerve signals throughout the body — meditation allowed for a reframing of the context and evaluation of these sensations.
“Consistent with this function, the more these areas were activated by meditation the more pain was reduced,” he says. “One of the reasons meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing.”
The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, who lives in Toronto.
Here are some of the other ways meditation can benefit you.