Humans have been employing mindfulness meditation for generations to try to reduce pain. Neuroscientists at UC San Diego have just discovered how this works, saying that it could lead to treatment safer than addictive painkillers. They published their findings last week in The Journal of Pain.
The study, which looked at 40 participants, demonstrated that mindfulness mediation cut off the flow of information between parts of the brain responsible for pain perception and regions that generate self-awareness.
Researchers noted that the precuneus is one of the first brain regions to go offline when a person loses consciousness. Another is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which includes several sub regions that work together to process how you relate to or place value on your experiences. The more these areas were decoupled or deactivated, the more pain relief the participant reported.
Study method and results
The participants had their brains scanned while painful heat was applied to their leg. After experiencing a series of these heat stimuli, participants had to rate their average pain levels during the experiment. Next, they were divided into two groups.
Members of the mindfulness group completed four separate 20-minute mindfulness training sessions. During these visits, they were told to focus on their breath and reduce self-referential processing by first acknowledging their thoughts, sensations and emotions but then letting them go without judging or reacting to them. Members of the control group spent their four sessions listening to an audio book.
At the end of the study, both groups had their brain activity measured again, but participants in the mindfulness group were now instructed to meditate during the painful heat, while the control group rested with their eyes closed.
Researchers found that participants who were actively meditating reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity and a 33% reduction in pain unpleasantness.
Implications for chronic pain
Researchers concluded that mindfulness meditation may provide a new method for pain treatment, noting that it is free and accessible to anyone in any location.
Mindfulness meditation could hopefully replace addictive and dangerous drugs, according to neuroscientist and senior author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, who is an associate professor in UC San Diego's Department of Anesthesiology.
“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,” said Zeidan. “Their pain becomes a part of who they are as individuals – something they can’t escape – and this exacerbates their suffering.
“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," he said. "We are excited to continue exploring the neurobiology of mindfulness and its clinical potential across various disorders.”