Want to reduce pain? Meditation may be the answer, brain study shows

For hundreds of years, meditation has been part of many cultures and daily lives as means to pain relief. If you’re not buying into the practice, perhaps scientists at the University of California, San Diego can sway your opinion. According to a recent study of theirs, they confirm that mindful meditating does indeed provide a very significant amount of pain relief for individuals.

In effort to understand how this works, researchers at the university’s School of Medicine measured the effect mindfulness meditation has on not just pain itself, but pain perception and brain activity.

“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,” says senior author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, an associate professor of anesthesiology at the school, in a statement.

To start, 40 participants had their brains scanned while a burning heat was applied to their leg. After this, the participants rated their average pain level. They were then split into two groups, mindfulness and control. Those part of the mindfulness group completed four separate 20-minute mindfulness training sessions.

During the sessions, participants were instructed to focus on their breath and limit thinking about themselves by first acknowledging their thoughts, sensations and emotions, but then letting them go without a reaction to them. Members of the control group listened to an audio book through their session. On the last day of the study, all participants had brain scans completed again, but mindfulness group members were told to meditate during the heat stimulus while the control group relaxed with closed eyes.

The team found that those who meditated reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity, and a 33% reduction in pain discomfort. “We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects,” says Zeidan.

Mindfulness-induced pain relief strategies were associated with decreased alignment between the brain thalamus (area that receives sensory information) and the default mode network (collection of areas most active when the brain is stimulated by thought). In other words, mindfulness isn’t stopping the pain from being signaled by the brain, but it is stopping the spiral of thoughts that make pain and suffering more difficult to manage.

The researchers believe that their findings support that mindfulness meditation can act as an accessible and holistic way of treating pain. Meditation can be done anywhere, at any time, and completely for free. “This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain,” concludes Zeidan. They feel that neurology and medicine are one-step closer to discovering a non-opioid based pain mechanism that can continue to be explored for widespread clinical application.

The study is published in the journal PAIN.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan

Shyla Cadogan is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. She is on her way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, with next steps being completion of a dietetic internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Shyla has extensive research experience in food composition analysis and food resource management.

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