Mindfulness meditation changes how the brain processes and perceives pain

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Researchers investigated the impact of mindfulness meditation on pain perception and brain activity. They found that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced the intensity and unpleasantness of pain by uncoupling the pain-processing part of the brain (the thalamus) from the brain regions responsible for self-referential processing.

The researchers suggest that mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief can be used by individuals seeking a fast-acting and non-pharmacologic pain treatment.

Millions of people experience chronic pain, which can often be disruptive to everyday life.

According to data from the National Health Interview SurveyTrusted Source, chronic pain — defined as pain that is felt “most days” or “every day” — affects 20.4% (1 in 5) of the adult population in the United States.

“Chronic pain is complicated,” said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine, in a TEDx talk he gave at the 2019 Napa Pain Conference. “It’s constructed and modulated by a constellation of interactions between sensory, cognitive and emotional factors, rendering the treatment of pain difficult and often a financial burden.”

Currently, there is no cure for chronic pain, but it is often manageable with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), aspirin, acetaminophen, and in more severe cases, short-term prescribed opioids. And emerging research shows there are alternatives for alleviating chronic pain, such as practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation, which is practiced by encouraging the detached observation of sensory events, could improve the quality of life for individuals living with chronic pain.

Several recent studies have demonstrated the efficacy of mindfulness meditation in managing chronic pain, such as chronic low back painTrusted Source and migraineTrusted Source.

In a new study published in the journal PAIN, Dr. Zeidan and colleagues explored the mechanisms underlying mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief.

In the first study session, the researchers tested the baseline pain levels of the participants by applying a painful heat stimulus to each participant’s right calf and asking them to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain using a visual analog scale: 0 meant no pain and 10 meant then most intense pain imaginable.

The researchers then randomly divided the participants into two treatment groups.

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