Pain is part of our daily lives, from the occasional ache of sitting too long to the burning pain from touching a hot plate by accident. Pain can come and go, but how intense it is when it arrives and how quickly it goes away comes down to a complex interplay between the sensation of damage to the body and the way the brain chooses to interpret that information. New research has now found that mindfulness meditation may be the next big player in pain prevention by shifting the balance in how the brain perceives and interprets pain.
How did the researchers study pain and mindfulness?
The researchers used a “placebo-controlled” trial design, meaning that the study used both a treatment they thought would work and a treatment they knew would not. Participants were given one or the other without knowing so that the researchers could pick out which results were due to the effective treatment (mindfulness in this case) and which were merely due to the body getting better because it was healing itself (in the other arms of the study). The team recruited 75 people not otherwise in pain and put them into one of four groups. One group got no treatment, another got a fake pain cream (in reality, it was just petroleum jelly), another was given an ineffective meditation program, and the last group was set up with a mindfulness meditation program.
The researchers tested pain responses by applying a hot probe the back of each person’s leg. Each participant rated their pain when this probe was applied while their brain was scanned before and after undergoing the various treatments. The researchers compared the MRI scans and pain scores from before and after the treatments to determine which treatments worked the best and which parts of the brain were affected when they did so.
What did the researchers find?
As expected, there was a strong placebo effect in reducing the amount of pain that people were feeling, which had been documented in many other studies. Compared to the control group that received no treatment, the people who applied the fake pain cream and the people who used the ineffective meditation program felt less pain when the hot probe was applied. But the mindfulness meditation group blew those treatments out of the water. Those who learned to be mindful felt about 25 percent less pain compared to only about 10 percent less in the placebo group. The emotional distress that pain caused was lowered by about 45 percent in the mindfulness group compared to 13 percent in the placebo group.
When the team examined the brain scans of each person in pain, they found two separate processes going on that were controlling pain. The placebo cream and fake meditation seemed to exert their effects by pushing the brain to clamp down on the processing of the sensation of pain in the somatosensory cortex (the brain’s sensory map and local processing). The mindfulness meditation didn’t change that direct sensation, but instead acted on the areas of the brain involved in self-control and in deciding the implications of the pain. It also blocked activity in a region of the brain called the thalamus that normally acts as a gatekeeper for sensory information. The researchers think lowering this activity means less pain sensation gets through to the brain, which means less perceived pain overall.
What does this mean for me?
This research is the first to show that mindfulness meditation has a unique effect on the brain that can’t just be chalked up to placebo. Fortunately for those who could benefit, it’s a treatment that costs very little to learn and isn’t dependent on finding a doctor to write you a prescription. While the study is small, it indicates that some people might be able to take control of some of their pain with the help of regular meditation and a mindfulness practice. The study used several 20-minute sessions per day to reduce pain in their participants, but it’s not known how much time per day is needed to have an effect. If you suffer from chronic pain or are just prone to aches and pains, learning to meditate might be a great way to cope.