Brain Scans Show How Meditation Eases Pain

Zen meditation discourages mental withdrawal from the world and dreaminess, and instead asks one to keep fully aware with a vigilant attitude. Typically one focuses on breathing and posture and aims to dismiss thoughts as they arise. Brain scans now show that Zen training leads to different activity in a set of brain regions known as the "default network," which is linked with spontaneous bursts of thought and wandering minds. Image (Image credit: Dreamstime)

New Jersey resident Frank Nafey wakes up every day with discomfort in his back and right leg. On good days, all he has to deal with is stiffness. But on bad days, it feels as if a knife were lodged in his back.

Nafey, a 56-year-old retired teacher in Bedminster, was diagnosed 15 years ago with multiple sclerosis. The autoimmune disease attacked the neurons in his brain, limiting his ability to move and causing pain in his limbs.

But he practices yoga and meditation to soothe his pain, with breathing exercises to focus his mind on things other than his body. These practices alone don't take away the pain, but at least they help his mind "become distanced" from his body, he said.

"When you have a chronic disease, it oftentimes feels like you're trapped within the body," Nafey told MyHealthNewsDaily.

In a new study by researchers from Wake Forest University, brain scans illustrate the mechanisms behind Nafey's experiences. The brains of people who underwent meditation training and were subjected to five minutes of pain showed a decrease in activation in regions associated with pain.

And the participants reported lower levels of pain than before they learned how to meditate, the study said.

The study appears tomorrow (April 6) in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Looking at the brain scans

According to the researchers, 15 healthy volunteers were subjected to painful heat for five minutes from a device attached to their leg while they underwent arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging, a type of brain scan that shows long durations of brain processes.

The scans revealed high activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, a brain region that determines the source and severity of pain.

Then the volunteers attended four 20-minute classes to learn a meditation technique called focused attention, which trained them to focus on breathing and to dismiss other thoughts or emotions.

After the meditation training, the study participants were again subjected to the painful heat on their leg while undergoing the brain scans. The scans revealed a decrease in activity in the primary somatosensory cortex and an increase in the activity in three regions that shape how the body experiences pain: the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex.

The ratings that the study participants assigned to the pain decreased 40 percent after they attended the meditation training sessions.

Acute pain and chronic pain

The findings show that meditation affects multiple regions in the brain to relieve pain sensations, said Alex Zautra, a psychology professor at Arizona State University who was not involved with the study.

Changes in breathing rate or heart function didn't account for the differences in pain ratings from before the meditation training to after it, so "changes in attention deployment made possible through training in mindfulness appear to have been the primary mechanism here," Zautra told MyHealthNewsDaily.

People at highest risk for acute pain, including firefighters, police officers and members of the military, stand to benefit the most from these studies, he said.

However, further study is needed before meditation is encouraged as a primary solution for chronic pain, Zautra said. 

Some people with chronic pain, like those who have fibromyalgia, may need additional treatment beyond meditation to soothe symptoms, he said.

Zautra authored a study, published last year in the journal Pain, that showed that breathing exercises could decrease pain sensations in healthy women. However, the results were mixed for women with fibromyalgia; only the women who had positive outlooks on life reported decreased pain sensations, his study showed.

Pass it on: Brain scans reveal that meditation can reduce sensations of pain.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Amanda Chan on Twitter @AmandaLChan.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Amanda Chan
Amanda Chan was a staff writer for Live Science Health. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.