Meditation is more effective than placebo

Meditation is growing in popularity and deservedly so. Several of my previous posts mentioned the benefit of meditation in migraine headaches. Scientists are conducting rigorous studies that repeatedly show the profound effect meditation has on the brain. The most recent study was done at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and it compared the effect of meditation and placebo on pain.

The study was published in the recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. It showed that mindfulness meditation not only provided greater pain relief than placebo, but the brain scans could differentiate patterns of brain activity during meditation from that induced by placebo.

The study involved seventy five healthy, pain-free volunteers who were randomly assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (“sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream or control.

Pain was induced by heat applied to the skin. The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent and the emotional aspect of pain (how unpleasant it was) by 44 percent. In contrast, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11 percent and emotional aspect of pain by 13 percent.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating brain regions associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas.

Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but was activated during all other conditions. This brain region serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers. By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away, said Dr. Zeidan, one of the researchers.

Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation. The placebo-meditation group had relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9 percent) and pain unpleasantness (24 percent). The study findings suggest that placebo meditation may have reduced pain through a relaxation effect that was associated with slower breathing.

This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation does not relieve pain the way placebo does. This study confirms previous observations that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment. Another study has shown that an 8-week course of mindfulness meditation not only relieved pain but also made certain parts of the brain cortex measurably thicker.

  1. Dr. Mauskop says: 01/02/20162:50 pm

    Meditation is a training process that leads to mindfulness. Here is one dictionary’s definition of mindfulness: The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.

    My favorite instruction book on meditation is actually called, Mindfulness in Plain English by B. Gunaratana.

    When you say that you’ve tried mindfulness and did not succeed, that is not possible because there is no way to fail. It’s just that you may not notice a difference until you do it for at least a few months. It is an ongoing process, so if you keep meditating, you will get better and better at it and you will become more mindful. And religion does not have to play a role, although Buddhists can teach you how to meditate. They might try to get you to believe in their religion too, but they are not pushy about it. So, if you have a local Buddhist temple, check it out – it will be a cheap way to get personal instruction. You can also learn by listening to free podcasts. is a good place to start.

  2. Mary Grayson says: 01/01/201611:51 pm

    I’ve tried mindfulness and not succeeded. My father meditated for 30 years to control blood pressure. I have Buddhist friends who meditate. I have ADD and find concentrating difficult and have never successfully been able to meditate. I did go to the golf driving range for hours and just concentrate on hitting the ball. For winter my father suggested the pistol range as a repetitive concentrated activity.
    But meditation and mindfulness aren’t two different things? It’s getting a bit confusing taking practices like meditation, which was used in the sixties medically to control BP and mindfulness which is based on concepts that are 1. Religious 2. Culturally alien to Western minds and i know I can’t do. What is “mindful meditation”? I’m ready to can the whole thing and go to a local Buddhist temple and just chant with them. I was about to start but now it’s getting too confusing.

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