ScienceDaily (Feb. 6, 2009) — Zen meditation – a centuries-old practice that can provide mental, physical and emotional balance – may reduce pain according to Université de Montréal researchers. A new study in the January edition of Psychosomatic Medicine reports that Zen meditators have lower pain sensitivity both in and out of a meditative state compared to non-meditators.
Joshua A. Grant, a doctoral student in the Department of Physiology, co-authored the paper with Pierre Rainville, a professor and researcher at the Université de Montréal and it's affiliated Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal. The main goal of their study was to examine whether trained meditators perceived pain differently than non-meditators.
"While previous studies have shown that teaching chronic pain patients to meditate is beneficial, very few studies have looked at pain processing in healthy, highly trained meditators. This study was a first step in determining how or why meditation might influence pain perception." says Grant.
For this study, the scientists recruited 13 Zen meditators with a minimum of 1,000 hours of practice to undergo a pain test and contrasted their reaction with 13 non-meditators. Subjects included 10 women and 16 men between the ages of 22 to 56.
The administered pain test was simple: A thermal heat source, a computer controlled heating plate, was pressed against the calves of subjects intermittently at varying temperatures. Heat levels began at 43 degrees Celsius and went to a maximum of 53 degrees Celsius depending on each participant's sensitivity. While quite a few of the meditators tolerated the maximum temperature, all control subjects were well below 53 degrees Celsius.Grant and Rainville noticed a marked difference in how their two test groups reacted to pain testing – Zen meditators had much lower pain sensitivity (even without meditating) compared to non-meditators. During the meditation-like conditions it appeared meditators further reduced their pain partly through slower breathing: 12 breaths per minute versus an average of 15 breaths for non-meditators.
"Slower breathing certainly coincided with reduced pain and may influence pain by keeping the body in a relaxed state." says Grant. "While previous studies have found that the emotional aspects of pain are influenced by meditation, we found that the sensation itself, as well as the emotional response, is different in meditators."
The ultimate result? Zen meditators experienced an 18 percent reduction in pain intensity. "If meditation can change the way someone feels pain, thereby reducing the amount of pain medication required for an ailment, that would be clearly beneficial," says Grant.
James: I'm not too surprised. It's always cool to see science agree with Buddhism because I believe that science and religion have more in common and complement each other more than people might realize. I'm sure that the results would be the same or similar with other forms of meditation--not just Zen meditation. Maybe this is why I have a high pain threshold? When I get tattoos I am able to deal with the pain quite well through the breathing techniques that I have learned via Buddhism.
This reminds of what "Anonymous" said in the last post about one of his teachers going without anesthetic for a minor surgery using the breathing techniques of meditation instead, which is a great example of how to use breathing techniques to alleviate pain. However, not everyone can do this even if they are an experienced meditator so I don't think someone is less of a Buddhist if they choose a general anesthetic. Of course there is a limit to that ability such as if someone needs open heart surgery but if it can help reduce aches and pains as well as even some minor outpatient surgeries then all the better.
That said, sometimes pain medication is necessary and I don't see it as violating the precepts when it is needed as prescribed by a doctor. Of course taking pain medication when not needed becomes the source of pain rather than alleviating it because it creates addiction and eventually can lead to loss of hearing (amongst other suffering) as seen in the American conservative radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh.
Science and Buddhism can complement each other in many areas if we are willing to look for them and embrace the idea that both play integral roles in our lives. I personally would feel completely lost without Buddhism and meditation. In addition, without science I probably wouldn't be alive today to be able to learn what I have through Buddhism and thus make more progress along the middle-path in this precious human life. Buddhism is teaching science that many spiritual techniques and activities are beneficial and not just some made up nonsense.
Of course there are going to be differences to both schools of thought but if we can focus on what we have in common then I think both sides can reduce the ill-will toward the other, which is a good thing in my view. The less ill-will in this world the better.