Meditation can deliver powerful pain-relieving effects to the brain with even just 80 minutes' training for a beginner in an exercise called focused attention, a study released Tuesday found.
"This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation," said Fadel Zeidan, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.
The findings appear in the April 6 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
"We found a big effect - about a 40-percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57-percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent," he added.
Researchers looked at 15 fit volunteers who had never meditated. The subjects each took four 20-minute sessions to learn how to control their breathing and put aside their emotions and thoughts.
Before and after sessions, subjects' brain activity was monitored with a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Called "arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging" (ASL MRI), it is able to give readings on longer duration brain processes, such as meditation, better than a standard MRI scan of brain function.
When ASL MRIs were being taken, a pain-inducing heat device was put on participants' right legs. It heated a small area of their skin to 120° Fahrenheit, which most people would find painful, for five minutes.
Scans taken after meditation training showed that all of the volunteers' pain ratings were reduced, with drops from 11 to 93 percent, Zeidan said.
Meanwhile meditation also reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.
Scans done before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high; but when participants were meditating during scans, activity in this important pain-processing region could not be detected.
"One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing," Zeidan added.