In the News: Mindfulness for Pain Mitigation
Varela Awardee Fadel Zeidan shows how meditation alleviates pain
2007 Varela Awardee Fadel Zeidan recently published his Varela study, “Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation,” (The Journal of Neuroscience, April 6, 2011. 31(14):5540–5548).
In the study, Fadel and fellow researchers John McHaffie (2004 and 2005 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute Senior Investigator), Robert Coghill (leading neuroimaging expert in pain) and others, stimulated subjects with painful though harmless heat on the back of their calves while measuring brain activity with functional MRI. Then, subjects underwent four days of 20 minutes/day of basic mindfulness training. Following the training, subjects were re-exposed to the pain stimulus while practicing mindfulness, and again brain activity was measured.
“We found a dramatic reduction in the pain ratings,” Fadel said, “including a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness.”
By contrast, other studies show that a clinical dose of morphine only provides a 20-25 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness employing a similar rating scale.
Fadel said that while preliminary studies show that meditation can reduce pain, this study shows how meditation reduces pain. “It illustrates the brain mechanisms involved in reducing pain,” he explained. “The short answer is: there is not just one mechanism – mindfulness meditation reduces pain through multiple avenues.”
According to the study, meditation reduced pain-related activation of the contralateral primary somatosensory cortex, reduced pain intensity through increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula, areas involved in cognitive regulation of pain and introspective awareness, and brain areas involved in the regulation of emotions such as the prefrontal cortex. Fadel intends to continue his research by further exploring the specific pain-mitigating aspects of meditation training and other self-regulatory techniques. “I will continue to assess the effects of meditation on pain by really diving into the investigation of the mechanisms involved in meditation-related pain relief, especially as compared to other robust control conditions,” he said. “Once we understand what the active mechanisms are, we can try to implement those in clinical settings.”
Fadel’s study is getting hearty mainstream coverage, some of which can be accessed here:
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