Study: Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Pain by Separation from Self

Although mindfulness meditation may be a new method of pain treatment and can be practiced anywhere, Zeidan hopes that training can be made even more accessible and integrated into standard outpatient procedures.

New research on the effects of mindfulness on pain perception and brain activity on pain relief for patients found that mindfulness meditation interrupted the communication between brain areas involved in pain sensation and those that produce the sense of self.

In the study, conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, pain signals were shown to still move from the body to the brain, but the individual did not feel as much ownership over those pain sensations, thereby lowering pain and suffering.

“One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences,” said senior author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine, in a press release. “You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we’re now finally seeing how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain.”

On the first day of the study, 40 participants had their brains scanned while painful heat was applied to their leg. After experiencing a series of heat stimuli, participants had to rate their average pain levels during the experiment.

Participants were then split into 2 groups, with members of the mindfulness group completing 4 separate 20-minute mindfulness training sessions. The participants were instructed to focus on their breath and reduce self-referential processing by first acknowledging their thoughts, sensations, and emotions, but then letting them go without judging or reacting to them. Meanwhile, the control group spent their 4 sessions listening to an audio book.

On the last day of the study, both groups had their brain activity measured again, but participants in the mindfulness group were instructed to meditate though the application of painful heat, while the control group rested with their eyes closed.

The research team found that participants who were actively meditating reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity and a 33% decrease in pain unpleasantness.

“We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects,” Zeidan said in the press release. “This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain.”

When brain activity was analyzed, the researchers found that mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with reduced synchronization between the thalamus and parts of the default mode network, which is a collection of brain areas most active when someone is mind-wandering or processing their feelings.

“For many people struggling with chronic pain, what often affects their quality of life most is not the pain itself, but the mental suffering and frustration that comes along with it,” Zeidan said in the press release. “Their pain becomes a part of who they are as individuals—something they can’t escape—and this exacerbates their suffering.”

Although mindfulness meditation may be a new method of pain treatment and can be practiced anywhere, Zeidan hopes that training can be made even more accessible and integrated into standard outpatient procedures.

“We feel like we are on the verge of discovering a novel non-opioid-based pain mechanism in which the default mode network plays a critical role in producing analgesia. We are excited to continue exploring the neurobiology of mindfulness and its clinical potential across various disorders,” Zeidan said in the press release.

REFERENCE

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Pain by Separating it from the Self. UC San Diego. July 8, 2022. Accessed July 20, 2022. https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/pressrelease/mindfulness-meditation-reduces-pain-by-separating-it-from-the-self

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