But the odd thing with meditation is that it bypasses the usual pain-control system in the brain and body. Our opioid receptors are usually activated when we take a painkiller—and it’s thought the same mechanism is triggered through acupuncture and hypnosis—but meditation seems to use a different pathway altogether.
“Our study adds to the growing body of evidence that something unique is happening with how meditation reduces pain,” said Fasdel Zeidan, who carried out the study with a team from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre.
To discover if meditation used a different way of reducing pain, Zeidan and his team compared it to naloxone, a drug that blocks the pain-reducing effects of the body’s opioids, and a saline drip, which acted as the placebo.
They recruited 78 healthy, pain-free volunteers into four groups for the experiment: meditation plus naloxone; non-meditation plus naloxone; meditation plus saline placebo, or non-meditation plus placebo. Pain was induced with a thermal probe that heated to 49 degrees C (120.2 degrees F).
The meditators who were also given naloxone—so their natural opioid system was blocked—nonetheless experienced a 24 per cent reduction in pain, and those who meditated and also had the placebo reported a 21 per cent drop in pain levels.