Instead of reaching for another aspirin or a muscle relaxer maybe you should try listening a little closer to your body. According to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, even a brief crash-course in meditation can ease the intensity of your pain and how unpleasant you feel as a result.
Researchers recruited 18 healthy young adults who had never practiced mediation prior to this study. During the four, 20 minute sessions, participants were taught meditation technique known as focused attention, which involves paying close attention to breathing patterns while acknowledging and letting go of thoughts that distract you. While in the training phase of the study, the participants were instructed to close their eyes and focus on the changing sensations of their breath. They were told to bring their consciousness back to their breathing each time their minds wandered. The goal was to acknowledge the distractions, accept them and simply let them go by gently bringing the attention back to the breath without any judgment.
Before and after the meditation training, brain activity was measured using a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The arterial spin labeling MRI process captures longer-duration brain processes, such as meditation, better than a standard MRI.
During the test, a device was placed on each participant’s right calf that delivered 120 degrees of heat — a temperature most people find painful. The heat was kept on the skin for 12 seconds and then taken off the skin for the same amount of time over a total of 5 minutes. The MRI showed a reduction in pain intensity ratings after meditation by an average of 40%, and pain unpleasantness ratings were reduced by 57%.
“The study confirms that mindfulness meditation can have a real and measurable impact on the experience of acute pain, even in people with very little formal training,” says Wake Forest Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy Robert C. Coghill, PhD. “Meditation has been used to treat chronic pain for a long time, but patients tend to have a lot more training,” he continues. “It is not clear if the brief training sessions like the ones used in this study would be useful for these patients.”
The lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D. says there’s reason to hope meditation could help with chronic pain.
“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 said.
Overall, the study shows there are alternatives out there if you’re coping with pain. Next time you feel a headache coming on, try meditation. If it’s not working (or you’re surrounded by the distractions of everyday life and simply unable to meditate — we all know that happens), try medication.