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Can mindfulness beat pain?


Woman meditating on the beach

Credit: 123RF

There are many fads that come along in the health industry but mindfulness meditation is not one of them. Certainly mindfulness is a buzz word right now but this is just a modern Western acceptance of what has been a known principle in Eastern thought for a long time. There is so much research coming out on the effects of mindfulness meditation but there are those who still doubt that it is much more than relaxation. There is plenty of evidence to show that mindfulness has more profound physical and psychological effects than mere relaxation such as new study showing how it can significantly reduce pain levels.

The mindfulness meditation was much more powerful and reduced the sensation of pain by 27 per cent and the emotional aspect of pain by 44 per cent.

In the study healthy pain-free subjects were assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (“sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream, and a control group. Pain was induced by using a heat probe to heat a small area of the subject’s skin to 49 degrees Celsius. This is a level of heat that most people would experience as very painful. The subjects rated pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response) as well having their brains scanned before and after the four-day long group experiences.

The placebo cream was found to reduce the sensation of pain by 11 per cent and the emotional aspect of pain by 13 per cent. The mindfulness meditation was much more powerful and reduced the sensation of pain by 27 per cent and the emotional aspect of pain by 44 per cent. The sham meditation group only had a 9 per cent reduction in sensations of pain and a 24 per cent reduction in emotional response to pain. The brain scans also showed that mindfulness produced different patterns of brain activity than the placebo cream.

Mindfulness meditation activated the parts of the brain associated with self-control of pain (the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) whereas the placebo cream reduced activity in pain processing areas (the secondary somatosensory cortex). In addition the thalamus was deactivated during mindfulness meditation but was activated in all other groups. The thalamus is a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centres. By deactivating the thalamus mindfulness meditation is causing pain signals to fade away. The sham meditation did seem to produce effects via relaxation induced by controlled breathing but the effects of mindfulness went much further than that.

Forget your pills, four 20-minute mindfulness meditations a day could be all the pain relief that you need.



 

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.