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Mindfulness Meditation Eases Emotional Pain By 44 Percent, Study Finds

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If the currently shown physical and mental benefits are not enough to get someone on board the meditation train, new research has shown that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced emotional pain.

A research team from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center discovered that subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation had a 44 percent greater pain relief than placebo. Brain scans revealed that this form of meditation substantially created various patterns of activity than those from placebo for pain management.

Neurobiology and anatomy assistant professor Dr. Fadel Zeidan, lead investigator of the study, said they were completely surprised by the results, as they assumed 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," Zeidan said.

The team analyzed 75 healthy, pain-free individuals randomly assigned to mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation, placebo analgesic cream, or control. They used pain ratings and brain imaging to determine meditation effects.

After the introduction of pain on skin and brain scanning, the mindfulness meditation group reported that emotional pain was reduced by 44 percent and pain intensity by 27 percent. The morphine or placebo cream, on the other hand, slashed emotional pain by 13 percent and pain sensation by 11 percent.

Past research indicated that the opioid morphine decreased physical pain by 22 percent, which mindfulness outperformed in this new study to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain through the activation of the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex, two brain regions linked to self-regulation of pain. Placebo cream, on the other hand, reduced pain via reducing brain activity in areas that process pain, particularly the secondary somatosensory cortex.

Meditation also deactivated the thalamus, which served as a pathway determining if sensory details are allowed to reach higher brain centers. Zeidan explained that shutting down this area caused pain signals to simply go away.

The lead researcher said this is the first time mindfulness meditation emerged as “mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects” associated with placebo cream or pretend meditation.

Based on the findings, as little as four 20-minute sessions of mindfulness meditation every day could enhance treatment of pain. However, as the research focused on healthy and pain-free participants, further studies need to be done to see impacts on patients of chronic pain.

Photo: Moyan Brenn | Flickr

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