Can you meditate your way through pain?

Meditation-related pain reduction is a rapidly emerging field. New findings, by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, have found that mindfulness meditation affects the brain in ways that reduce pain.

Mindfulness meditation has been found to improve a number of cognitive and health outcomes, including anxiety, depression and stress. It is also associated with enhanced cognitive control, emotion regulation, positive mood, and acceptance; each of which can be linked to pain intonation.
But what exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is regulated and sustained attention to the moment-to-moment quality and character of sensory, emotional and cognitive events. It recognises events as momentary and changeable, and in doing so breaks the inclination to perceive a momentary experience as lasting. By reframing this perception, mindfulness can help reduce discomfort and pain.

The current study involved 75 healthy, pain-free participants who were randomly assigned to one of four groups; mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (relaxation), placebo analgesic cream or control. Pain was induced by using a thermal probe to heat a small area of skin to a level that the participants would find painful. They were then asked to record their pain intensity, the physical sensation, as well as their emotional response.

For those in the mindfulness meditation group, pain intensity decreased by 27 per cent, while the emotional aspect of pain fell by 44 per cent. Conversely, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by just 11 per cent, and the emotional aspect by 13 per cent.

Researchers stipulate that mindfulness meditation reduced pain in the participants by activating the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex, brain regions that are associated with the self-control of pain. It was also found that the thalamus was deactivated during mindfulness meditation. The thalamus controls the sensory information that reaches the brain. By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation prevents pain signals from reaching the higher brain centres.

Lead author, Fadel Zaidan, explained; ‘Based on these findings, we believe that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment in a clinical setting’.

Source: Journal of Neuroscience