Mindfulness meditation is a better pain reliever than placebo, shows a study which also proves that this form of meditation is more than a placebo. Brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation and placebo work in different ways on brain activity to reduce pain.

Mindfulness meditation reduces pain by activating the part of the brain associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowers pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas. The thalamus was deactivated during mindfulness meditation indicating the pain signals were simply not allowed to reach higher brain centres.

As little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment in a clinical setting, recommend the researchers, though it may not be sufficient to treat chronic pain conditions.

"We were completely surprised by the findings," said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at North Carolina's Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study. "While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion."

Seventy-five healthy, pain-free participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation ("sham" meditation), placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly) or control. Pain was induced by heating up small area of the skin to uncomfortable levels of 49C (120.2F).

Study participants then rated pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response). The participants' brains were scanned before and after their respective four-day group interventions.

The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27% and by 44% for the emotional aspect of pain. In contrast, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11% and emotional aspect of pain by 13%.

The placebo meditation group reported relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9%) and pain unpleasantness (24%). The pain reduction here could be from a relaxation effect associated with slower breathing.

"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. The research is published in the 11 November issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Mindfulness meditation is about practising a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. It also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them. For more on mindfulness meditation, check this Berkeley site.