Meditation can reduce your pain by 32%
The neural circuits supporting mindfulness-induced pain reduction are revealed by research from the University of California, San Diego.
Neuroscientists have recently been able to study if and how mindfulness meditation really works, despite the fact that people have been practicing it in an attempt to relieve their pain for millennia. In the most recent of these initiatives, scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine assessed how mindfulness affects both brain activity and pain perception.
The research, which has just been published in the journal PAIN, demonstrated that the practice of mindfulness meditation cuts off communication between the parts of the brain responsible for the sensation of pain and those that generate self-awareness. In the proposed mechanism, pain signals still travel from the body to the brain, but since the person has less control over these painful feelings, they experience less pain and suffering.
“One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences,” said lead author Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., associate professor of anesthesiology at the University College of Medicine. UC San Diego. “You practice feeling thoughts and feelings without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we finally see how this plays out in the brain during the acute pain experience.”
On the first day of the experiment, 40 people had their brains scanned while having their legs exposed to intense heat. The experiment asked volunteers to rate their typical pain levels after being exposed to a series of various thermal stimuli.
Two groups of participants were then formed. Four separate 20-minute mindfulness training sessions were completed by the group participants. They were told to focus on their breathing and decrease self-referential processing during these visits by noting their thoughts, feelings, and sensations before letting them go without analyzing or reacting to them. Participants in the control group listened to an audiobook during their four sessions.
On the final day of the study, both groups’ brain activity was measured again, but participants in the mindfulness group were now instructed to meditate during the painful heat, while the control group rested their eyes. closed.
Researchers found that participants who actively meditated reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity and a 33% reduction in pain unpleasantness.
“We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these pain-relieving effects,” Zeidan said. “This is a really important discovery for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting, non-pharmacological treatment for pain.”
When the team analyzed participants’ brain activity during the task, they found that mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with reduced synchronization between the thalamus (an area of the brain that relays incoming sensory information to the rest of the brain) and parts of the default mode. network (a set of brain areas that are most active when a person mind wanders or processes their own thoughts and feelings as opposed to the outside world).
One of these default mode regions is the precuneus, an area of the brain involved in fundamental features of self-awareness, and one of the first regions to disconnect when a person loses consciousness. Another is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which includes several subregions that work together to process how you relate to or value your experiences. The more these areas were decoupled or deactivated, the more the participant reported pain relief.
“For many chronic pain sufferers, what often most affects their quality of life isn’t the pain itself, but the mental suffering and frustration that comes with it,” Zeidan said. “Their pain becomes part of who they are as individuals – something they cannot escape – and it exacerbates their suffering.”
By foregoing the self-referential assessment of pain, mindfulness meditation may provide a new method of pain treatment. Mindfulness meditation is also free and can be done anywhere. Still, Zeidan said he hopes the training can be made even more accessible and incorporated into standard outpatient procedures.
“We feel like we are on the verge of discovering a new non-opioid 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 in various disorders. »
Reference: “Unraveling from Pain: Mindfulness Meditation-Induced Pain Relief is Driven by Decoupling the Default Thalamic Mode Network” by Gabriel Riegner, Grace Posey, Valeria Oliva, Youngkyoo Jung, William Mobley and Fadel Zeidan, July 7, 2022, PAIN.