TUESDAY, April 5, 2011 (Health.com) — You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to experience the health benefits of meditation. According to a new study, even a brief crash course in meditative techniques can sharply reduce a person’s sensitivity to pain.
In the study, researchers mildly burned 15 men and women in a lab on two separate occasions, before and after the volunteers attended four 20-minute meditation training sessions over the course of four days. During the second go-round, when the participants were instructed to meditate, they rated the exact same pain stimulus—a 120-degree heat on their calves—as being 57% less unpleasant and 40% less intense, on average.
“That’s pretty dramatic,” says Fadel Zeidan, PhD, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, N.C. The reduction in pain ratings was substantially greater than those seen in similar studies involving placebo pills, hypnosis, and even morphine and other painkilling drugs, he adds.
The findings, which appear in the April 6 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, aren’t entirely surprising. Past research has found that Buddhist-style meditation—also known as mindfulness meditation—can help people cope with pain, anxiety, and a number of other physical and mental health problems. But in most cases the training takes weeks, not days.
The fact that Zeidan and his colleagues achieved these results after just 80 minutes of training is “spectacular,” says Robert Bonakdar, MD, the director of pain management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, in San Diego.
“Although the full benefits of meditation can be realized after long-term training, our study suggests that some of the effects can be realized just for your average Joe,” Zeidan says.
The type of meditation used in the study is known as Shamatha, or “focused attention.” Like other forms of mindfulness meditation, it entails learning how to observe what’s going on in one’s mind and body without judging, and while maintaining focus on one’s breathing or a chanted mantra.
Brain scans conducted during the pain experiments showed that this technique appeared to cause a number of changes in how the participants’ brains responded to pain.
Next page: Meditation fights pain two ways