Sorry big pharma. Om.
Placebos are weirdly effective at reducing pain. In some cases, people have even become addicted to placebo drugs and shown withdrawal symptoms after ceasing to take them, when really the drug is nothing but a sugar pill. Now, new research shows that mindfulness meditation is even more effective at reducing pain than a placebo painkiller. This finding could revolutionize pain treatment and therapy, but the big pharma industry probably won’t be thrilled about the news.
The study had a dual approach to gauge a participant’s pain level — pain ratings and brain imaging — to determine whether mindful meditation simply works like a placebo at reducing pain. The research tested 75 healthy participants and randomly assigned them to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo “sham” meditation, placebo painkilling cream, or the control group.
In what was likely a highly uncomfortable start to the study, all of the volunteers were hooked up to an MRI brain scanner while the researchers inflicted pain by prodding them with an 120-degree thermal probe. This gave them an idea of how the participants dealt with pain before taking them through the meditation practices or giving them the placebo cream.
For the next couple of days, the sham meditation group was simply told to breathe deeply for 20 minutes without any instructions on how to meditate mindfully. On the other hand, the mindfulness meditation group was given a much more intensive lesson — they were told to sit up straight, close their eyes, and focus their attention on letting thoughts and emotions pass without judgment.
“Our subjects are taught to focus on the changing sensations of breath and to follow the breath with the mind’s eye as it goes down the chest and abdomen,” Dr. Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, told TIME.
The placebo group was told that the cream would help reduce pain over time. So they rubbed the cream on the back of their legs for four days and tested it against the painfully hot probe. However, the sneaky researchers were cranking down the heat each day, so the participants thought the placebo cream was working.
After the final pain test, the mindful meditation group reported a drop in pain intensity by 27 percent, as well as a 44-percent drop for the emotional aspect of pain. The placebo group only reported an 11 percent drop in pain sensation, and emotional pain reduced by 13 percent. For the sham meditation group, the numbers were respectively 9 and 24 percent. The mindfulness meditation group trumped all.
Interestingly, by looking at the brain scans, the researchers found that a brain region called the thalamus was deactivated during mindfulness meditation. The thalamus is the brain region that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers, and it was activated during all of the other study conditions. The mindful meditation may have caused the pain signals to simply fade away by deactivating this area, says Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study.
"This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation," Zeidan said.
He hopes that four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment in a clinical setting, but the research has to explore mindful meditation’s effects on those with chronic pain since this study tested its effects on healthy, pain-free individuals.
What’s really amazing, however, is that past research has shown that morphine reduces physical pain by 22 percent — higher than the placebo effect but lower than mindfulness meditation. Mindful meditation could even be better at reducing pain than one of the most potent painkillers on Earth.