Understanding How Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Pain
Mindfulness meditation seems to ease pain by allowing people to separate pain from things they’re experiencing, according to a small study.
The research was published online on July 7, 2022, by the journal Pain. Read the abstract of “Disentangling self from pain: mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief is driven by thalamic-default mode network decoupling.”
About mindfulness meditation
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is internationally known for his work as a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher who had a goal of bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. He is professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he founded its world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979.
Although definitions of mindfulness vary slightly (depending on who you’re talking to), Dr. Kabat-Zinn describes it as an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom. Essentially, mindfulness is a special type of awareness.
During mindfulness meditation, you don’t ignore distracting thoughts and feelings. Instead, you acknowledge and observe them without judgment. By disconnecting yourself from your thoughts and feelings, you can look at them objectively — as if they were not yours — and gain insights about them.
Research has suggested that mindfulness meditation can ease the following side effects of breast cancer treatment:
Still, researchers haven’t been able to figure out how mindfulness meditation helps to ease these side effects.
About the study
The small study included 40 people who were considered healthy, pain-free, and had never meditated. Half the people were men and half were women, and their average age was 30.
On the study’s first day, all the people had a brain scan while researchers used a probe to apply painful heat to the backs of their right calves. The people could move away from the probe and stop the pain at any time. The researchers applied painful heat to the people several times.
The people had to rate their average pain levels.
The researchers then split the people into two even groups:
20 people completed four 20-minute mindfulness meditation training sessions. They were instructed to focus on their breath and detach from themselves by acknowledging their thoughts, sensations, and emotions, but then letting them go without judgment or reacting to them.
20 people spent four 20-minute sessions listening to an audio recording of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. The people were not allowed to sleep, use their phones, or talk during the sessions.
On the study’s last day, both groups had a brain scan again while researchers applied painful heat to the same spot on their legs. The researchers told the people in the mindfulness meditation group to meditate while the heat was applied. The researchers told the people in the audio book group to rest with their eyes closed.
After asking all the people to rate their average pain levels again, the researchers found that people in the meditation group had a:
32% reduction in pain intensity
33% reduction in pain unpleasantness
After analyzing the people’s brain activity during the heat application, the researchers also found that people who meditated had less connection between two areas of the brain: the thalamus and the default mode network.
The thalamus delivers sensory information, such as heat, cold, and pain, to the rest of the brain.
The default mode network is a collection of brain areas that are most active when a person is daydreaming or processing their own thoughts and feelings as opposed to processing information from the outside world.
One of the areas in the default mode network is the precuneus, which is involved in self-awareness and is one of the first areas to stop functioning when a person loses consciousness. Another area is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which includes several smaller regions that work together to process how you place value on your experiences.
People who had more pain relief had less connection between these areas, as well as less activity in the default mode network areas.
“We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects,” senior author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, said in a statement. “This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain.
“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,” Dr. Zeidan continued. “Their pain becomes a part of who they are as individuals — something they can’t escape — and this exacerbates their suffering.”
What this means for you
If you’re experiencing pain from breast cancer treatment or from the cancer itself, this study offers promising results and echoes results from other small studies: Mindfulness meditation can help ease pain.
If you’re interested in trying mindfulness meditation but aren’t sure how to start, you can:
You also can ask for information at your cancer treatment center or read more about Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided Mindfulness Meditation practices.
Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor
— Last updated on September 20, 2022, 9:32 PM