What if meditation works merely as a placebo because, like a tainted jury, people have already heard about its benefits? This is the question that Dr. Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, set out to answer.
After recruiting 75 pain-free people to participate in his study (published November 18, 2015, in The Journal of Neuroscience), Zeidan divided them into four groups: one was given a bogus cream and told it would reduce pain; another group was told to meditate without instruction; one lucky group was taught mindful meditation; and the control group listened to a tedious book on tape. After four days, results from MRI scans, while enduring pain induced via a 120-degree thermal probe, were compared to scans before “manipulation.” The results were surprising.
The three “treatments”—the cream, untrained meditation and mindfulness meditation—all reduced pain significantly. The cream reduced the sensation of pain by an average of 11 percent and the emotional reaction to pain by 13 percent. Comparatively, the untrained mindfulness group showed a 9-percent and 24-percent reduction, respectively. And mindfulness meditation exceeded them all: Pain intensity dropped 27 percent, while emotional pain lowered a whopping 44 percent, demonstrating that people are less likely to experience pain when they are able to control their emotional reactions.
Other studies have also shown that mindfulness meditation surpasses morphine in its ability to reduce pain, but the most surprising part of this study is that the people who had practiced mindfulness meditation appeared to use different regions of the brain to reduce their pain. This preliminary study is the first to demonstrate that mindfulness as a technique to reduce pain is physically different than a placebo.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics shows America’s use of pain killers on the rise, this study provides hope that the more than 100 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain could find relief—and that relief could be significantly cheaper than the roughly $600 billion, as reported by the Institute of Medicine, that’s spent to treat and manage pain.
At a time when prescription drug use has been declared an “epidemic” (such as in President Obama’s multi-agency plan, titled “Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis”), Zeidan’s study could offer an alternative for many people. What’s particularly exciting is that reducing pain via mindfulness meditation works quickly. Even beginners can reap the rewards.