How Meditation Works to Treat Pain

Posted by Admin on June 2, 2011

In today's fast-paced society, it's easier than ever to get wound up, worked up and stressed out. And that means enduring constantly high bodily levels of the "fight or flight" hormones cortisol and epinephrine. While these two proteins are very helpful, when the body is constantly charged with them without any "down time," a lot of negative things start happening. These include mental decline, thyroid impairment, blood sugar imbalance, muscle loss, midriff fat gain, blood pressure increase and immunity falloff.

A recent study shows that people can get their necessary "down time" - thus fighting all of these negatives - through meditation. The research, done by the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, seems to show that calming one's mental state through meditation actually affects gene expression.

The lead researcher, Herbert Benson, coined the term "relaxation response" and pioneered the study of meditation's physiological effects. In his earlier investigations, he demonstrated that the relaxation response helps heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen consumption and brain activity. His new work helps explain the causal mechanisms behind these improvements.

Benson's study examined gene expression in two groups of people - some with long experience in meditative techniques and others with none. After the comparison, the researchers trained the non-practitioners in the techniques, and re-examined the group.

What the scientists discovered was that these deep-relaxation practices alter the way genes handle inflammation, programmed cell death, and free radicals, which are charged molecules that can damage delicate cell proteins. Long-term meditators exhibited the greatest positive differences. More research is being done on stress-related disorders to see if meditative practices can benefit them.

Other research published in The Journal of Neuroscience confirms the physiological impact of mediation. The study was done at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Lead author, Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D, said, "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.”

"We found a big effect about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent."

What made this study different was that the researchers studied the actual brain activity of participants, using a special type of imaging -- arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI). This technology captures longer duration brain processes, such as meditation, better than a standard MRI scan of brain function.The researchers were able to follow how the pain areas appeared during the scan while participants meditated. 

Participants were exposed to a heat source intended to cause pain on a patch of skin. Not only was the reported sensation of pain diminished by mediators, but also the brain functions normally associated with pain did not become highlighted during the process. Meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.

The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex. All of these areas of the brain shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body. The research implies that mediation is capable of increasing  brain activities associated with pain or changes how we exeprience pain.

The hope is that such research will help support other clinical findings for the use of mediation as a practical therapy for treating pain.


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