The latest breakthrough in the field of pain medication has been made by Dr. Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy and his team of researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Their research was inclusive of a dual approach method to comprehend the level of pain felt by the volunteering participant; one was pain imaging and the other pain ratings. The main objective of this research was to determine the impact of mindful medication on pain, whether it can work like a placebo for reducing pain.
The Experiment in a Nutshell
According to the research, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Dr. Fadel Zeidan and his team analyzed the seventy-five pain free volunteers, who had been randomly segregated into four groups- placebo meditation, mindfulness meditation, placebo analgesic cream, or control. Previously they had noted the various effects of stress, mood, anxiety, depression, attention, distraction, expectation, hypnosis, placebo and emotional condition on pain. Heightened emotional and cognitive control has often been known to reduce pain. Mindfulness meditation works in a similar manner. The main object was to determine the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for pain relief.
What are Placebo Drugs?
Placebo drugs are nothing but sugar pills. They are also known as sham medication. But that does not reduce their importance as patients tend to grow a psychological dependence on them. Many become addicted to them and often portray withdrawal symptoms, when they cease their intake. This psychological dependence also helps to palliate the pain. This new research on mindfulness meditation shows that is more effective in the reduction of pain than the placebo painkillers.
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What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness is a prolonged period of time when an individual pays attention to the cognitive and emotional events in his/her own life. This prolonged attention can be attained by heightened perception, meditation and deep contemplation over the said events. Focused attention is a form of mindfulness meditation wherein the individual should maintain focus on a particular object, either the rhythmic flow of breath or on any external object while meditating. While open monitoring involves the indirect grasping of any sort of emotional or sensory or cognitive event that comes to the mind of the individual during the process of meditation. This process of meditation for pain reduction is indeed very effective, as illustrated later.
The Initial Steps of the Research
In the beginning, all the individuals were connected to an MRI brain scanner, while the researchers prodded them with a 120-degree thermal probe in order to inflict pain, so that they could gauge how the participants fared with pain and are able to determine the effectiveness of the process of meditation for pain management. After determining how they dealt with pain, the participants were divided into groups and for the next few days, their “treatments” were done. Those who were placed in the placebo meditation group were told to meditate by breathing deeply for around twenty minutes or so. They were not provided with any proper instructions as to how to proceed, they were merely told to meditate. The second group, which comprised of the mindfulness meditation group, was given extensive lesson on mindfulness meditation. The individuals in this group were taught to sit straight, keep their eyes shut and mainly focus on flitting emotions and emotions in their mind without judging them. They were also told 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,” as mentioned by Dr. Fadel Zeidan in his interview. While the third group, which consisted of individuals, were treated with the placebo analgesic cream and told that that the cream would help to diminish their pain in due time. So they applied the cream for days and tested it with the heated pain inflicting probe. They were unaware that the cream was not any healing cream, but merely petroleum jelly. Yet they thought that the medication was working as the researchers reduced the heat every day.
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How Does it Work?
The thalamus is that part of the brain which determines whether the sensory receptors are allowed to impart the information to be receipted by the higher brain centers. The process of mindfulness meditation deactivates the thalamus and hinders the signals of pain to persist and gradually the pain fades away. The thalamus again gets reactivated during all other times. The mindfulness meditation process activates the anterior cingulated cortex and the orbitofrontal portions of the brain. These regions are known for controlling the sensation of pain. Thereby, they are more effective in curbing the sensation of pain. On the other hand the use of the placebo cream diminishes the normal activity in the secondary somatosensory cortex part of the brain, which also helps in determining the sensation of pain.
After all the tests were over, the results were tallied and percentage drop in physical and emotional pain was determined. The placebo meditation group showed a 9% drop in physical pain and 24% drop in emotional pain. The third group, the placebo cream group reported a 11% drop in physical sensation of pain and 13% reduction of emotional pain. While the second group, the group which employed the technique of mindfulness meditation for pain relief, showed maximum promise by reporting a 27% drop in the sensation of physical pain and a 44% drop of the intensity of the emotional pain. Morphine is known to reduce physical pain by 22%. Thereby the potency of mindfulness meditation to reduce physical pain is higher than that of morphine, which happens to be one of the most potent painkillers known to mankind.
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Years of research and development has proved the ability of mindfulness and meditation to reduce pain by manipulating certain functional and structural changes in certain regions of the brain. The latest discovery at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center proves that pain can be reduced by deactivating the thalamus by mindfulness meditation.