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Mindfulness meditation can help reduce pain, study finds

A new study has found that mindfulness meditation can help alleviate the sensation of pain.

Furthermore — and this is really the new finding in this study — you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk or other long-time meditation practitioner to experience these pain-reduction benefits.

In fact, you can be a meditation novice.

The study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Neuroscience, gave 15 volunteers a crash course (four 20-minute sessions) in a type of mindfulness meditation called Shamatha (Sanskrit for “calm abiding”). The six men and nine women (aged 22 to 35 years) were instructed to pay attention to their breathing while “letting go” of any thoughts that might distract them from that focus.

After the training, the volunteers were asked to meditate while hooked up to MRI machines that could observe what was going on in their brains. As they meditated, a heated device was placed against their right calves, raising their skin temperature up to a painful (but not torturous) 120 degrees. They were then asked to rate both the intensity and the unpleasantness of the pain.

All the volunteers had undergone a similar type of experiment before they had received meditation training. During that initial experiment they had simply been told to close their eyes, reduce their movement and “meditate by focusing on the changing sensations of the breath” while prodded with the heat device. (By telling the volunteers to focus on their breathing but without giving them specific meditation training during this arm of the study the researchers could control for the phenomenon of divided attention. In other words, they would be better able to rule out distraction as a factor should the meditation arm of the study result in a reduction in pain.)

When pain ratings from both experiments were compared, researchers found that the volunteers had rated the pain stimulus given to them while they were officially meditating as being an average of 57 less unpleasant (with a range of 22 percent to 70 percent for individual volunteers) and an average of 40 percent less intense (with a range of 20 percent to 93 percent).

The MRIs also revealed some interesting findings. While meditating, the volunteers'  brains exhibited reduced activity in several areas, including in the primary somatosensory cortex, which is where our brain tells us which part of our body is experiencing pain — and how intense that pain is.

Interestingly, the study found that the more successful a volunteer was at meditating (based on an assessment that measures levels of mindfulness), the more reduced activity he or she experienced in brain areas associated with pain.

Of course, this study’s findings don’t mean that pain is “all in the head” and that people with chronic pain only need to learn to meditate to ease their symptoms. Pain is much, much more complex than that. Still, mindfulness meditation — which is, after all, relatively easy and inexpensive to learn and produces no undesirable side effects — may help some people relieve some of their chronic pain.

Given how prevalent chronic pain is (pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined), that's something we may all want to become more mindful of.

[Full disclosure: I do some writing for the Society for Neuroscience, which publishes the Journal of Neuroscience.]

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Comments (2)

A study based on 15 participants? What placebo was the control group given?

Gavin,

You're absolutely right. This is a very small study, and, like all studies, big or small, it has methodological problems. Other factors could have explained these results.

I should have discussed in my post that this study supports earlier research regarding meditation and pain. (And, yes, those studies also have problems.)

I certainly don't think that this one small study -- or even all the studies done to date -- proves meditation relieves pain. But one could make the argument that there's a growing consensus that meditation helps some people with their chronic pain. And, as I wrote, since meditation is inexpensive and has no side effects, it's something some people may want to consider.