Meditation Helps Your Brain Handle Post-traumatic Injury and Pain
When was the last time you sat still, doing nothing (no phone!) for longer than 30 seconds? If you can’t exactly recall, you are simply part of a smart-phone-wielding modern world that has us constantly on the go. Finding time to sit still for longer than a few minutes can feel like a waste of time.
But for those living with post-traumatic chronic pain or injury, medical research studies are starting to show what many eastern traditions have known for centuries: doing nothing actually does quite a lot.
Studies are showing that the practice of meditation is actually a demonstration of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reshape itself to adapt and grow. Meditation, the practice of sitting still with closed eyes to focus on a sense, a sound, or breath, while observing the thoughts that go by, can actually change the structure of the brain in a way that helps a person deal with the physical and emotional experience of pain.
A 2011 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that meditation restructures the brain. In the study, MR images were taken of subjects who had meditated average of 27 minutes a day during an 8-week program. The images showed a notable decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, the fight-or-flight area of the brain that processes pain, fear, and anxiety. The images also revealed a significant increase in the brain’s gray matter in the hippocampus, associated with a person’s ability for self-awareness, compassion, introspection, and tolerance.
Researchers concluded these neurological changes allow a person to process pain differently. Through meditation, the brain is taught to recruit higher-order brain functions to take the place of more primal ones. The result is a calmer, milder, more transient reaction to pain.
In other words, less pain.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience underscored this finding. In this recent study, MRI tests were administered to 75 people while they experienced painful heat with a 120-degree thermal probe. Then they were split into 4 groups over 4 weeks. The control group sat in a room listening to a book on tape. The second group was given a placebo cream that participants were told reduces pain over time. The third group was taught a “fake” meditation. The forth group was instructed on mindfulness meditation technique, focusing on breath and allowing their thoughts to flow. After four days, all groups returned to MRI testing with the same hot thermal probe, and were instructed to use their newly learned technique to reduce the pain.
Compared to the control group, the placebo cream group reported reduced physical pain by 11% and reduced emotional unpleasantness of pain by 13%. The fake mindfulness group reported reduced physical pain by 9% and emotion pain by 24%. The meditation group reported physical pain reduced by 27% and emotional pain reduced by 44%, beating the other groups far and away.
The authors of the study noted that the meditators appeared to be accessing different parts of the brain while experiencing pain, a technique unprecedented by other methods of pain control and rehabilitation. It was also noted that the meditators’ percentage of pain relief was greater than the known effect of opioid medication.
These studies are accompanied by many others in recent years, showing meditation caused measured improvement in symptoms of physical pain, PTSD and anxiety, daily stress, blood pressure, arthritis, immune system function, and even productivity and general reported happiness. Certain practitioners are now even prescribing mediation for their patients in the same way they would prescribe medication: starting with a low dose of 5 minutes of meditation per day.
The study of meditation is growing rapidly, increasingly supported by neuroscience and the medical community. The potential for more effective and permanent options for pain management for patients recovering from traumatic injury is rising as a result.
 Sara Lazar, et al., Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Jan 30, 2011 http://www.psyn-journal.com/article/S0925-4927(10)00288-X/abstract
 Zeidan Fadel, et al, Mindfulness Meditation-Based Pain Relief Employs Different Neural Mechanisms Than Placebo and Sham Mindfulness Meditation-Inducted Analgesia, Journal of Neuroscience Nov 18, 2015, http://www.jneurosci.org/content/35/46/15307.full