Mindfulness meditation changes the way the brain perceives pain

Research published in July 2022 has investigated the impact of mindfulness meditation on pain perception and brain activity. They discovered that it significantly reduces the intensity and unpleasantness of pain – it does this by uncoupling the thalamus – the part of the brain which processes pain – from the brain regions responsible for self-referential processing. The researchers have suggested that mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief could be used as a fast acting, non-pharmacologic pain remedy.

Mindfulness meditation, which encourages the detached observation of sensory events, may improve the quality of life for individuals living with chronic pain. Various studies have been done previously to investigate the efficacy of mindfulness meditation in managing chronic pain. This new study, published in the journal PAIN, explores the underlying mechanisms in this pain relief.

The study involved 40 healthy and pain-free participants. In the first session, the baseline pain levels of the participants by applying a painful heat stimulus to each participant’s leg, asking them to rate the intensity on a scale of 0-10. Following this, the participants were divided into two treatment groups. One group was trained to focus on the changing sensations of their breathing without judging themselves or the experience. The training was given over four 20 minute long sessions, during which time members of the other group listened to an audiobook.

Upon returning to the lab, the participants underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan to measure their brain activity. While they rested, the painful heat stimulus was once again applied to their leg. The mindfulness group had been instructed to meditate until the end of the study, and the control group were instructed to keep their eyes closed. The painful heat stimulus was once again applied to their leg, and participants were again asked to rate the pain.

The results showed that the meditation reduced heat-induced pain by 33% when compared to the rest phase, while the control group reported an 18% increase in pain from the beginning to the end of the brain scan.

When the fMRI scans were compared, it was discovered that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced pain processing in multiple brain regions. Meditation-induced pain relief was associated with the deactivation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which regulates the self-narrative processing of moment-to-moment experience. There was also evidence of association with decoupling between the thalamus and the precuneus. The thalamus is the part of the brain that relays sensory impulses, including pain, from receptors in various parts of the body to the rest of the brain. The precuneus is part of the default mode network, a set of brain regions that are thought to be activated when individuals are engaged in self-reflection.