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What Are the Benefits of Meditation for Pain?

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  • Written By: Jacob Queen
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 08 December 2016
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Many spiritual traditions have relied on meditation for pain relief throughout the centuries, and recent scientific studies have shown that this practice seems to actually work. Both brain scans and people’s reported experiences suggest that the body's perception of pain is significantly changed by certain meditative practices, generally reducing the overall feeling of pain to a degree that rivals some of the strongest pain medications. Scientists are still somewhat unclear about the reasons why meditation for pain relief is effective, and there are slightly differing theories in both the spiritual and scientific communities. Some people are still somewhat skeptical about the reported results because of the methods used in laboratory tests, while others think that meditation may actually be even more effective on certain kinds of chronic pain in real-life situations.

Generally speaking, when people try to use meditation for pain relief, the techniques revolve around focusing on the breathing, or pondering certain concepts. By focusing and relaxing, people are often able to let their thoughts manifest and disappear without actually making any emotional judgments. The mental state created by this activity seems to generate certain effects in the body and mind, some of which seem to help people with pain relief.

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Some people believe that the activity of meditating releases certain endorphins in the body that help reduce pain. Others think that the main effectiveness of the method comes from the way people feel emotionally about their pain and has very little to do with physiological aspects. For a long time, scientists mostly tended to agree with the second group and felt that meditations' effectiveness was probably just a question of perception, but some recent information, particularly a study by an expert named Fadel Zeidan from Wake Forest University, has caused some experts to reconsider.

According to the study, not only do people report significant pain reduction after performing meditation, but brain scans seem to show that the activity in the brain's pain centers decreases to a significant degree. In the tests, people had noticeable pain reduction with only a minimal training in meditation, which contradicts some earlier ideas that many months of training would be required before meditation could be helpful for pain. The amount of pain reduction was a significant improvement over what people generally experience when using morphine under similar circumstances, which generally surprised researchers.

Some skeptics question the credibility of some of the lab tests because they don’t believe the pain used in the tests — generated through a mildly uncomfortable level of heat — was significant enough. These experts believe that the effectiveness of meditation for pain relief might be much less noticeable in other circumstances or in situations where someone has to deal with chronic pain on a day to day basis. Others think that meditation might be even more effective for chronic pain in real life than it was in the lab tests, especially for pain that can’t be treated easily with medication.

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