Ayush Darpan ISSNN0.0976-3368

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

10 min read
“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.”

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.

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.

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