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According to many news sources, meditation is more effecting than morphine in reducing pain.

According to a study in Wednesday's issue of Journal of Neuroscience, meditation can reduce pain by 40 to 57 percent. That's a better figure than what's been recorded for pain-relieving medicines — including morphine — which top off at a 25 percent pain reduction.
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This can be reconducted to the following statements by the author of the paper, Fadel Zeidan.

‘We found a big effect – about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness,’ added Zeidan, post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre. ‘Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent,’ said Zeidan, reports the Journal of Neuroscience.
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This sounds like an extraordinary claim, requiring extraordinary evidence. Is there any study that contradicts Zeidan? Is he actually making the same claims, or is he a victim of sensationalist reporting?

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I don't have an answer, but my gut reaction is that people drugged up on morphine might be cognitively impaired and thus self-reporting may offer challenges to data collection... –  horatio Apr 7 '11 at 18:18
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I took a look at just the abstract,and the claim seems fairly plausible when applied to the noxious stimuli used in the study (which was a heating element attatched to leg and heated to 120F for 5 minutes).However, it seems odd (and possibly dangerous) to extrapolate this data to other situations where opiate induced anagelsia is indicated (severe burns, surgery, etc). I downloaded the study, and may respond if I have time to read it. It seems this method may be an effective way of dealing with low levels of pain when analgesia isn't available, but I see no reason yet to expand from there. –  Monkey Tuesday Apr 7 '11 at 19:24
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Anecdotal evidence: when I was younger, I did manage to get through some moderately painful experiences with meditation, but I couldn't get any benefit with severe pain. I suspect that most pain that meditation would help is too light to justify prescribing morphine, and therefore I question the comparison. –  David Thornley Apr 8 '11 at 2:09
    
Or David, it could be that you hadn't enough experience of meditation. My understanding is that the effects are accumulative. –  TrojanName Jun 22 '11 at 12:48
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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The pain assay used was a semi-acute pain assay (from the paper, p. 5541):

Noxious thermal stimuli were delivered to the posterior aspect of the right calf by a 16 × 16 mm2 TSA II thermal stimulator (Medoc). The “heat” condition consisted of thermal stimuli that were administered in alternating patterns of heat (49°C) and neutral (35°C) with 12 s durations at each temperature

Analgesics typically work better on chronic pain, so even if one compared directly (which the paper does not) I'm not sure that the results would seem all that surprising, especially since (at least according to Wikipedia) opioids "do not provide complete analgesia regardless of whether the pain is acute or chronic in origin".

Of course one would like to see the results replicated and there may be methodological problems with the study (e.g. the training does not appear to have been done in a double-blind fashion, subjects served as their own controls, etc..). But it doesn't seem to me to be an extraordinary claim, just an interesting one.

Also, it's worth pointing out that this is not just "wishing away" the pain; it's a specific meditative training regime that probably works in a very different way than "wishing". We have much more dramatic examples than this of attentional or context-specific impacts on our perception. (E.g. a gentle touch from a loved one vs. a gentle touch when one is surrounded by spiders.)

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Ok, thanks - it is a sensationalist claim in the media, though. I'll edit the title. –  Sklivvz Apr 7 '11 at 19:50
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There nothing extraordinary about the claim. Hypnosis has a good reputation for being an effective way to treat pain.

Guided meditation is sometimes used as a synonym for hypnosis. The subject goes in a trance and focuses his attention according to suggestions.

Some subjects will find it easier to go into a trance than other but those subjects that can go into a deep trance can effectively deal with a lot of pain.

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Is your conclusion, then, that the statements in the news are misleading? They only speak about "meditation" and not "guided meditation", whereas the paper is more specific. –  Sklivvz Apr 8 '11 at 9:40
    
Guided meditation is a form of meditation. The problem isn't that the claim is misleading but that it's vague. –  Christian May 27 '11 at 18:41
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