Practicing mindfulness, the practice of being fully aware moment-to-moment, is often linked with various health benefits, from boosting the immune system to improving memory and attention skills. A new study to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that mindfulness can also be a natural healing technique for emotional and physical pain that may be even more powerful than morphine.
Mindfulness, a secular form of meditation, was created as a tool for reducing pain and stress. During mindful meditation, participants focus on their breathing, recognize thoughts and feelings as temporary, and pay special attention to the body’s physical sensations.
The new study on mindfulness and pain relief, led by Dr. Fadel Zeidan of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, focused on the relationship between mindful meditation and the brain. Zeidan scanned the brains of 75 healthy participants with an MRI as they experienced painful heat from a 120-degree thermal probe. His team found that those who practiced mindfulness experienced a decrease in pain intensity. At the conclusion of the test, patients who mindfully meditated reported less physical pain by 27% and less emotional pain by 44%.
On the other hand, the researchers noted that morphine, the most potent of all opioids, had been reported to only reduce physical pain by 22%. Most commonly used treat pain after surgery, morphine acts by attaching itself to the opioid receptors in the brain. The MRI results from Zeidan’s study showed that those who practiced mindfulness used different brain regions to reduce the pain. Zeidan explains the science behind the phenomenon as:
“[Mindful meditators] had increased activation in higher-order brain regions associated with attention control and enhanced cognitive control, while exhibiting a deactivation of the thalamus, a structure that acts as the gatekeeper for pain to enter the brain.”
Though this study is the first of its kind, it opens a discussion for research about alternative pain management techniques and their powerful effects on the way our brains process and control pain.
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