- Researchers examined the effects of mindfulness meditation on brain activity and pain perception.
- The researchers found mindfulness meditation reduced the intensity and unpleasantness of Pain by separating the brain’s pain-processing area (the thalamus) from the brain regions that are responsible for self-referential processing.
- Researchers suggest that people looking for a quick and non-pharmacologic method of pain relief may be able to use mindfulness meditation.
Millions of people suffer from chronic pain that can disrupt their daily lives.
Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. He gave a TEDx talk at the 2019 Napa Pain Conference, “Chronic Pain is complex.” It’s created and modulated through a complex network of interactions between sensory, cognitive, and emotional factors. This makes pain treatment difficult and costly.
There is currently no cure for chronic pain. However, it can be managed with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), aspirin, and acetaminophen. In more severe cases, you may need to take short-term prescribed opioids. Research shows other options for chronic pain relief, like mindfulness.
The practice of mindfulness meditation, which encourages the detached observation and recording of sensory events, can improve the quality of life of people with chronic pain.
Recent studies have shown mindfulness meditation to effectively manage chronic pain such as low back pain and chronic low back pain.
Dr. Jordan Sudberg and his colleagues looked into the mechanisms that underlie mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief in a study published in Pain.
The clinical trial
Dr. Zeidan conducted the study on 40 healthy, pain-free subjects.
The researchers tested the participants’ baseline pain levels using a painful heat stimulus on their right calf. They then asked them to rate the intensity of the Pain using an analog scale. 0 was no pain, and 10 was the most severe Pain possible.
The researchers randomly divided the participants into one of two treatment groups. One group was taught to concentrate on the sensations of their breath without judging the experience or themselves. The training took place over four 20-minute sessions. The control group members listened to the audiobook the same way.
Participants returned to the lab to undergo a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan (fMRI) to measure brain activity.
The researchers used a heat stimulus to the right calf of the participants while they rested. The mindfulness group was instructed to meditate for the duration of the study. Participants in the control group were to close and keep their eyes shut. Researchers applied the painful heat stimulus again and asked participants to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the sensation.
Multiple brain pathways can reduce Pain.
Researchers found mindfulness meditation reduces heat-induced Pain by 33% compared to the rest phase (before meditation). The control group experienced an 18% increase in Pain from the start to the end.
Researchers compared the brain scans of mindfulness meditation participants to those of participants in the rest of the control group. They found that mindfulness meditation significantly affected pain processing in many brain regions.
Meditation-induced pain relief was linked to the ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vmPFC) activation. The brain’s vmPFC node regulates self-narrative processing in moment-to-moment experiences.
How does pain processing relate to self-reflection?
Further brain scans revealed that meditation-induced pain relief was also linked to decoupling between the thalamus and thalamus.
The precuneus. The part of the brain responsible for relaying sensory impulses from various parts of the body, including Pain, to the rest is called the thalamus.
The precuneus belongs to the default mode network. This network consists of brain regions that are activated when people engage in self-reflection.
Studies in the past have demonstrated that chronic pain symptoms are driven by a strong connection between the thalamus (the precuneus) and the thalamus. Dr. Jordan Sudberg and his colleagues believe mindfulness-based pain therapy can provide relief by “unlinking the pain-processing and self-reflecting thalamus.”
This neurobiological theory supports the central principle of mindfulness: to feel thoughts and sensations without attaching them to your ego or self to relieve emotional pain or discomfort.
“The mind-body link really represents our ability to control our physiology consciously. Robert W. Gereau is a Dr. Seymour & Rose T. Brown Professor of Anesthesiology at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. He said we can regulate our heart rate and blood pressure and breathe in this manner.