Meditation instead of morphine -- not so fast

Meditation appears to be a powerful way to take away pain -- just a short session is more potent than even morphine, if we’re to believe the headlines -- but let’s take a closer look.

In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, meditation rookies reported feeling less pain after meditation training than they had felt before the training.

The novice yogis weren’t simply being polite -- scans of their brains backed up their “less-hurt” claims.

The study, from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, echoes other research that suggests clearing your mind can reduce pain, but it’s far too early to recommend that chronic pain sufferers toss out their pain-killers.


More: Tribune Co. coverage on the best remedies for relief, finding the source of pain and upcoming therapies

In the study, an instructor taught 15 volunteers a technique called focused attention, in which one lets go of distracting thoughts and focuses on breathing. Subjects attended four 20-minute classes.

Before and after meditation training, the participants were subjected to five minutes and 55 seconds of pain – relative pain, anyway. Researchers heated a small patch of skin on the subjects’ right legs to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and the subjects used a 6-inch plastic sliding scale to report their level of discomfort.

After the training sessions, the volunteers reported a 40% reduction in pain intensity and a 57% drop in pain unpleasantness. Morphine typically reduces pain ratings by 25%, the researchers said.

MRI scans of the volunteers before meditation training showed a flurry of activity in a pain center of the brain, the primary somatosensory cortex, that all but disappeared after meditation training.


Now for the caveats. Every subject had some pain relief by meditating, but there was wide variability among participants -- between 11% and 93%. Further, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from 15 people (18 were recruited, but one was excluded for not being sensitive enough to the heat, one was too sensitive and another fell asleep in meditation).

And the pain the researchers inflicted -- a burning sensation for a few minutes -- doesn’t compare to what many people, such as cancer patients, must endure.

Overall, such studies add to a growing body of research suggesting that even short meditation sessions can have measurable pain-relieving benefits. That’s important to folks who must struggle with the aches and pains of daily life and who don’t want to pop painkillers for every twinge. And for sure, daily meditation has clear medical benefits.

But meditate, for a few seconds, on the thought of undergoing even a small surgery without painkillers.


Maybe it’s too early to pass on morphine.