The emotional anguish and frustration that come along with having chronic pain frequently have a greater impact on many people’s quality of life than the pain itself.
Their pain becomes a part of them, something they can’t get away from, which makes their suffering worse.
Mindfulness meditation has been used to treat pain for centuries, but only recently have neuroscientists been able to study its effects.
In this new study, scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine examined how mindfulness affected both brain activity and perception of pain.
The study, which was posted on July 7, 2022, in PAIN, demonstrated that mindfulness meditation cut off the flow of information between brain regions responsible for pain perception and those that generate a feeling of self. In the suggested process, pain signals still travel from the body to the brain, but because the person has less control over those painful feelings, they experience less pain and suffering.
“You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them,” says senior author Fadel Zeidan, “and we’re now finally seeing how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain.”
On day one of the trials, 40 people had their brains scanned while having severe heat given to their legs. Participants were required to rate their average pain levels throughout the experiment after being exposed to a series of these heat stimuli.
After that, participants were divided into two groups. The group’s participants went through four distinct 20-minute mindfulness training sessions. They were told to pay attention to their breathing during these sessions in order to lessen self-referential processing by first noting their thoughts, feelings, and sensations before letting them go without analyzing or reacting to them. During each of their four sessions, members of the control group listened to an audiobook.
On the last day of the study, the brain activity of both groups was measured again. This time, the mindfulness group was told to meditate during the painful heat, while the control group just rested with their eyes closed.
Researchers found that people who were actively meditating reported a 32% decrease in how painful the pain was and a 33% decrease in how unpleasant the pain was.
“We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects,” adds Zeidan. “This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain.”
When the team looked at the brain activity of the participants while they did the task, they found that mindfulness-induced pain relief was linked to less coordination between the thalamus (a part of the brain that sends sensory information to the rest of the brain) and parts of the default mode network (a collection of brain areas most active while a person is mind-wandering or processing their own thoughts and feelings as opposed to the outside world).
The precuneus, a brain region involved in basic aspects of self-awareness and one of the first regions to go offline when a person loses consciousness, is one of these default mode regions. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a different one; it has a number of subregions that cooperate to process how you relate to or value your experiences. The subject reported feeling higher pain relief as these sections were disconnected or deactivated.
According to Zeidan, the emotional suffering and frustration that accompany chronic pain frequently have a greater negative impact on many people than the actual pain itself. Their suffering is made worse since their pain “becomes a part of who they are as individuals—something they can’t escape.”
Mindfulness meditation may offer a novel approach to treating pain by helping people to stop focusing on their own subjective experiences of discomfort. The practice of mindfulness meditation does not cost anything and may be done anywhere. Even yet, Zeidan expressed his desire for training to be more widely available and incorporated into routine outpatient practices.
“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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