If you’re hurting, sit down. Meditation can reduce pain by 40 percent, a new study finds. In fact, meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically lower pain ratings by about 25 percent, says lead study author, Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., of Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
Zeidan taught study participants how to meditate during four 20-minute sessions. Then, while meditating, the subjects had a hot, 120-degree pad placed on their right calves for about 6 minutes while undergoing PASL MRI scans—a form of functional MRI testing that better captures longer brain processes.
Every subject felt less pain while meditating than before their meditation training.
“What our study found is that you only need a small amount of training—just over an hour’s worth—to be able to meditate in a way that successfully reduces pain,” Zeidan says.
If you continue meditating regularly, the pain relief affects last even longer. “The incredible thing about proper meditation is that the more you do it, the more it becomes a part of you,” he continues. “There were prior studies on monks who had incredible amounts of meditation training, and they didn’t even have to meditate to reduce pain. It had become automatic.”
The PASL MRI scans showed meditation works by affecting the brain on multiple levels. “It shuts off the primary somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for feeling sensation, while at the same time activating other parts of the brain responsible for attention, mood, emotions and reward processing,” Zeidan says. “We don’t know 100 percent how meditation shuts off the primary somatosensory cortex, but we think the activity of the other brain regions lowers its activation.” Previous research has also found that meditation actually changed the makeup of your mind.
While Zeidan is reluctant to prescribe meditation as a lone painkiller, he does note it has its place. “It can reduce the need for medication, and ultimately lower related costs. Plus, there are absolutely no side effects outside of improved well being.”
If that isn’t enough to convince you, meditation has also been shown to reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even lead to better sex. Ready to give it a shot? Here’s a course in mindfulness meditation 101.
Assume the Position
“You can lie down, walk, eat, or sit,” Dr. Zeidan says. Do whatever makes you comfortable and makes it easy for you to focus.
Feel Your Breath
Focus on your breath—and this is important—how it feels. “Follow it as it enters at the nose, notice any tingling, scan your body for sensations,” Dr. Zeidan says. “This is where you should transition from thinking to observing,” offers Mallika Chopra, daughter of Deepak and creator of intent.com along with a series of meditation videos. “Once you get into a rhythm with your breath, observe how your breath moves in and out, noticing how it makes your body feel.”
Racing Thoughts? Let Them Go
If you get distracted, don’t worry about it—and definitely don’t feel guilty, notes Chopra. “You could experience a million thoughts in one sitting, and it’s important not to ignore them,” Zeidan says. “Instead, acknowledge them, and realize they’re just a moment in your life. If you’re angry, for example, acknowledge that, but then see your anger as a moment, and let it pass.” A trick to keep from dwelling on a thought: If you notice your mind wandering, go back to observing your breath.