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Mental Health

Mindfulness Practices Can Relieve Pain, New Study Shows

— August 26, 2022

Study finds one more reason to practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the present moment and being aware of thoughts, feelings, and surroundings as they flow through the mind. It can be extremely beneficial to make an effort to be mindful throughout the day – appreciate things as they come. Now, new research offers one more reason to engage in mindfulness practices. Intentionally being in the present moment can alter pain receptors in the brain, providing in-the-moment relief.

In a new clinical trial, more than 100 people were assigned to a two-month mindfulness stress reduction program (MBSR), a health improvement program (HEP) or were put on a waiting list. Brain scans were performed during a heat-based stimulus pain procedure and showed that those who completed the MBSR “had a reduction in a brain signature linked to the sensory intensity of pain,” the authors reported. Their findings were published online July 28 in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

“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 investigator Joseph Wielgosz, PhD, of the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mindfulness Practices Can Relieve Pain, New Study Shows
Photo by Brett Jordan from UnSplash

The team also reported, “Further analysis in long-term meditation practitioners showed the total time spent on intensive retreats was associated with neural changes associated with the perceived stress of pain.”

“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 added. “The way that mindfulness affects pain processing has more to do with the way the brain interprets pain signals.”

The investigators note in their paper, “Understanding the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the efficacy of nonpharmacologic pain interventions is a high-priority objective for improving pain treatment…Evidence from brief laboratory interventions and cross-sectional studies suggests that mindfulness practices are associated with alterations in both sensory processing and cognitive-emotional regulatory networks. However, no such study has yet been conducted on a standardized, full- length, and widely used clinical intervention, such as MBSR.”

Mindfulness is about being able to observe thoughts without judgement to gain a better understanding of how one is feeling in the moment. There are many ways to be more mindful in everyday life. One way is to simply take a few moments each day to stop and focus on breathing – there are many deep breathing exercises that can easily be found online. Paying attention to the way the body feels while engaging in a breathing exercise can help a person to home in on the areas in which they feel pain and imagine releasing it.

Mindfulness can also be practiced while walking, working, or doing any other activity. The key is to simply be intentional in keeping one’s thoughts in the present and focusing on the sensations that are being experienced. This can reduce stress and anxiety, help to alleviate symptoms of depression, and promote a general sense of ease and well-being. All of these benefits can help to mitigate pain.


Mindfulness ‘Changes the Biology’ of Pain

Neural Signatures of Pain Modulation in Short-Term and Long-Term Mindfulness Training: A Randomized Active-Control Trial

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