Is meditation really a better painkiller than morphine?
Researchers at Wake Forest University have found that meditating for 80 minutes is enough to reduce pain intensity by almost twice as much as morphine or other pain-relieving drugs. How is this possible — and what do the findings mean for chronic pain sufferers? Here's a brief guide:
How did the study work?
Researchers gathered 18 healthy subjects who had never meditated, and led them in four 20-minute sessions, teaching them a technique called "focused attention," in which meditators monitor breathing very closely in order to ward off distracting thoughts or stimuli. During the class, researchers placed a 120-degree heat patch on subjects' legs several times, both before and after meditation, asked them how unpleasant it was, and also monitored their brains using a special kind of MRI.
And what did they find?
Every participant reported less pain after the meditation sessions than before. On average, the subjects' reported pain unpleasantness plummeted by 57 percent. (A dose of morphine or another pain-relieving drug only elicits a 25 percent reduction, according to the researchers.) The MRI scans, meanwhile, showed that meditation led to a drastic change in brain activity. Before the exercises, the primary area of the brain that helps regulate pain lit up intensely. After meditation, scientists couldn't detect any activity there at all. (See a photo showing the differences.)
How significant is this?
"Meditation has long been touted as a holistic approach to pain relief," says Adam Cole at NPR, "and studies show that longtime meditators can tolerate quite a bit of pain." The Wake Forest study is different because it shows that even a brief exposure to the practice can have a dramatic effect. "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," says lead researcher Fadel Zeidan.
The study points to a future where modern medicine can be integrated with time-tested practices like meditation, says Adam Knapp at Forbes. Still, it's not clear whether short bursts of meditation can help people with serious, chronic pain. "Meditation has been used to treat chronic pain for a long time, but patients tend to have a lot more training" than 80 minutes, says Robert C. Coghill, an associate professor at Wake Forest.