Meditation More Effective than Placebo for Pain Relief

January 4, 2016
Rachel Lutz

Study results show that mindful meditation reduces pain more efficiently than placebo.

Mindful meditation reduces pain more efficiently than placebo, according to findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center examined patients’ pain ratings as well as brain imaging in order to determine whether mindfulness meditation is more effective than a placebo. The researchers used 75 healthy, pain free participants and assigned them to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation, placebo analgesic cream, or control. The investigators induced pain with a thermal probe to heat a small area of the participants’ skin to 120 degrees. The patients rated the pain intensity, or physical sensation, and the pain unpleasantness, the emotional response. Brain scans using the arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging were taken before and after the heat probe usage.

The mindfulness meditation was designed to reduce pain by activating orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex regions of the brain, known areas that influence self control of pain, as well as deactivate the thalamus. The placebo cream, a petroleum jelly, lowered pain by diminishing brain activity in areas such as the secondary somatosensory cortex.

The researchers found pain intensity decreased by 27 percent and the emotional response to pain was reduced by 44 percent in the mindfulness meditation group. The placebo reduced pain intensity and emotional response by 11 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

“We were completely surprised by the findings,” lead investigator Fadel Zeidan, PhD, explained in a press release. “While we thought that there would be 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.”

The placebo patients saw 9 percent decreases in pain intensity and 24 percent of emotional pain response. The researchers believe that this study is particularly influential because placebo controlled trials are the recognized standard for which efficacy and safety of pharmacological interventions are measured against.

“This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation,” Zeidan concluded, but noted that the study only included pain free volunteers. “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.”