Scientists discover how mindfulness meditation boosts pain relief

mindfulness meditation
© iStock/Patrick Chu

Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have uncovered how mindfulness mediation can effectively reduce pain.

Civilisations around the world have utilised mindfulness meditation to reduce pain for centuries, despite the little research to back up the benefits of meditating. However, a team at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine has now revealed the mechanisms behind the practice influencing pain perception and brain activity.

The study illuminated that mindfulness meditation disrupts signals between brain areas that control pain sensation and those that produce the sense of self. Pain signals move from the body to the brain, but the individuals do not experience as much ownership over these sensations, reducing their perception of pain.

Fadel Zeidan, PhD, the senior author of the study and an associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said: “One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences. 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.”

The study is published in PAIN.

Analysing pain relief from mindfulness meditation

The study involved 40 participants who had their brains scanned as different levels of painful heat were applied to their legs, with the individuals rating their pain during the experiment. The participants were then divided into two groups.

The mindfulness group performed four 20-minute mindfulness training sessions and were instructed to focus on their breathing and reduce self-referential processing by acknowledging their thoughts, sensations and emotions but letting them go without reacting to them. In contrast, members of the control group experienced four sessions of listening to an audiobook.

The researchers analysed the participant’s brain activity again on the final day of the study, with the mindfulness group told to meditate during the painful heat, whereas the control group rested with their eyes closed. The results demonstrated that the mindfulness meditation group reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity and a 33% decrease in pain unpleasantness.

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

How meditation impacts the brain

When monitoring the patient’s brains during the test, they discovered that pain relief due to mindfulness meditation was linked to reduced synchronisation between the thalamus and parts of the default mode network.

The thalamus is an area of the brain responsible for transporting incoming sensory information to the rest of the brain. The default mode network is a collection of brain areas that are primarily active when someone is daydreaming or processing their thoughts and feelings as opposed to the outside world.

One of these default mode regions is called the precuneus and is instrumental for self-awareness and is one of the first to go offline when a person becomes unconscious. Another region is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which helps a person relate to or place value on an experience. The team identified that the participants reported more pain relief when more of these brain areas were decoupled or deactivated.

Zeidan said: “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. Their pain becomes a part of who they are as individuals — something they can’t escape — and this exacerbates their suffering.”

The researchers explained that mindfulness meditation might offer an accessible and effective pain relief treatment that is free and can be practised anywhere. In addition, they noted that it could be made more accessible by integrating meditation into standard outpatient procedures.

Zeidan concluded: “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.”

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