Meditation for Modern Life

Mindfulness skills from a well being expert

Medication Versus Meditation

Research shows how a regular mindfulness practice decreases pain.

Many people who reach out to me after reading my articles and books and listening to my podcasts share that they experience physical pain—both intermittent and chronic. Having constant pain can make life very challenging. Meanwhile, many prescription and over-the-counter drugs have severe side effects. The good news is that there are pain management strategies that can address pain without medication.

An April 2011 article, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, described a study involving 15 healthy volunteers who had never before meditated. Over the course of four 20 minute classes they learned to meditate.

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The volunteers were then subjected to 120 degree heat on small areas of their legs for five minutes, during which time researchers monitored their subjects’ brain activity through MRI's. Next, researchers applied the same five minute heat while the volunteers meditated. When compared to their non-meditative states, the volunteers’ pain perception dramatically decreased during their meditative states. In fact, they experienced a 40% pain reduction and a 57% pain unpleasantness reduction. These percentages represent greater pain-relieving effects than narcotics such as morphine, which typically reduces pain by 25%.

The MRI’s themselves also revealed that meditation reduced activity in the somatosensory cortex, which is an area of the brain that is involved in creating the perception of where and how intense pain is experienced. In fact, the scans taken before the meditation took place show high somatosensory cortex activity. But when the volunteers were meditating and the pain was being induced, their somatosensory cortex activity was undetectable.

Clearly, this study shows that practicing meditation is an effective way to address pain. And you’ll find multiple other studies that come to similar conclusions. So next time you experience a headache, next time you hurt, or if you’re suffering right now with chronic pain, consider the role that meditation can play in improving your life. 

You may ask, “Dr. Puff, what’s wrong with taking medication if it works?” My answer is simple. As a licensed clinical psychologist, I’ve treated many people in my practice that have had to take pain medication; many have become addicted to it. Addiction to pain medication is a very common among those who have to use medication regularly. This addiction can have serious effects on a person’s life, personality, family, friends. In addition, many pain medications also have side effects on the body and its organs, which is why most doctors run medical and blood tests on patients who take strong medications regularly.

In my case, I recall slamming my finger in the car door. In fact, it was fully closed with my finger still lodged between the door and the frame. Once I freed my finger, I breathed slowly and deeply, and within 10 seconds the pain went away. I know that I have a very high tolerance for pain naturally, but I also believe that my quick recovery was a result of my regular meditation practice.

I encourage you to join me on this meditation journey. You may find that it will help you take on whatever pain you experience—whether small, large, chronic, or intermittent. Living with chronic pain is challenging at best. If you’ve been treating it through medication, consider the role that meditation can play in pain management. Even if, after picking up a regular meditation practice, you still find yourself requiring prescription drugs to decrease your pain, I believe that meditation will increase your overall quality of life. And the best part is that it's free and has no side effects.

Robert Puff, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been in private practice for over 20 years.

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