A study published in PAIN (July 2022) found that mindfulness meditation interrupts the communication between brain areas involved in pain sensation, as well as those that produce a sense of self. Although it's a small study, the results give much food for thought when it comes to pain management strategies.
First, 40 participants had their brains scanned as painful heat was applied to their leg, and they then rated their pain level. Next, the participants split into two groups: one completed four 20-minute mindfulness training sessions, and the other listened to an audiobook.
When undergoing the heat stimuli again, the mindfulness group was instructed to meditate during the pain, while the controlled group rested with closed eyes. The meditating participants reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity and a 33% reduction in pain unpleasantness.
According to the brain activity measurement, mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with reduced synchronization between the thalamus and the parts of the default mode network: The more these areas were deactivated, the more pain relief the participant reported.
The researchers concluded that by separating the self from the appraisal of pain, mindfulness meditation may be a promising method for pain treatment. Mindfulness meditation is also free and can be practiced anywhere. "One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences," said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at University of California San Diego School of Medicine. "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.
"We were really excited to confirm that you don't have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects," continued Dr. Zeidan. "This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain."