Does mindfulness for pain relief yield any positive benefits? A new study shows that it does.
The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, identified pain-regulation pathways in the brain that were altered by an eight-week “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” course.
These changes were not seen in participants who took a similar course without the mindfulness instruction, which suggests that the brain changes are due to the mindfulness training itself.
Mindfulness for pain programs fill a much-needed gap
The study is the first to demonstrate pain-related brain changes from a standardized mindfulness course that is widely offered in clinical settings.
Around one-third of Americans experience pain-related problems, but common treatments — like medications and invasive procedures — don’t work for everyone.
Even worse, medications have contributed to an epidemic of addiction to prescription and illicit drugs, said the study’s lead author Joseph Wielgosz.
The “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” course
Popular with patients and promising in its clinical outcomes, mindfulness training courses like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (commonly known as MBSR) have taken a central place in the drive for a more effective approach to pain management.
By practicing nonjudgmental, “present-centered” awareness of mind and body, participants can learn to respond to pain with less distress and more psychological flexibility — which can ultimately lead to reductions in pain itself.
MBSR was developed in the late 1970s by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This training provides intensive mindfulness training to help people with stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.
A recent review of MBSR studies found that the average pain reduction reported by participants was clinically significant. And while there are no guarantees when it comes to pain management, mindfulness training appears to be a low-risk intervention with potentially high rewards.
Measuring pain in the brain
To measure neural pain response, study participants had their brains scanned while receiving a carefully controlled heat-based stimulus on their forearm.
The researchers recorded two brain-wide signatures of pain-related activity.
This innovative technique dramatically improves the ability to detect pain-related signals in the brain’s complex activity.
Changes in signatures can also be more easily interpreted in psychological terms.
People who followed the MBSR mindfulness for pain program got better results
Participants in the MBSR course showed a reduction in the sensory intensity of pain.
“Our finding supports the idea that for new practitioners, mindfulness training directly affects how sensory signals from the body are converted into a brain response,” said lead author Wielgosz.
The study is also significant for the field of pain research in its use of brain-based measures of pain alongside the subjective ratings of the participants in a randomized trial. Pain researchers have long sought ways to biologically measure the effect of treatment.
“Looking at neural signatures together with patient experiences revealed insights about mindfulness that we could never have detected through either one alone,” Wielgosz says.
Mindfulness for pain management in the long term
The study also looked at longer-term mindfulness training.
Intriguingly, practice on intensive meditation retreats was associated with changes in the neural signature for influences that shape pain indirectly.
Those include, for example, differences in attention, beliefs, and expectations, which are factors that often increase the perceived levels of distress in non-meditators.
“Just like an experienced athlete plays a sport differently than a first-timer, experienced mindfulness practitioners seem to use their mental ‘muscles’ differently in response to pain than first-time meditators,” Wielgosz says.
These findings help show the potential for mindfulness practice as a lifestyle behavior.
In addition to the insights it provides about mindfulness, the researchers believe that their study can also provide a model for future research, helping to untangle the complexity of pain and ultimately reduce the burden it places on our lives.
Study: “Neural Signatures of Pain Modulation in Short-Term and Long-Term Mindfulness Training: A Randomized Active-Control Trial”
Published in: American Journal of Psychiatry
Authors: Joseph Wielgosz, Tammi R.A. Kral, David M. Perlman, Jeanette A. Mumford, Tor D. Wager, Antoine Lutz, Richard J. Davidson
Publication date: July 28, 2022
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