Brief training in meditation may help in pain managemen

Although pain research during the past decade has shown that extensive meditation training can have a positive effect in reducing a person's awareness and sensitivity to pain, the effort, time commitment, and financial obligations required has made the treatment not practical for many patients. Now, a new study (published in the current issue of The Journal of Pain) by University of North Carolina at Charlotte psychologists Fadel Zeidan, Nakia S. Gordon, Junaid Merchant and Paula Goolkasian, shows that a single hour of training spread out over a three day period can produce the same kind of analgesic effect.

Over the course of three experiments employing harmless electrical shocks administered in gradual increments, the researchers measured the effect of brief sessions of mindfulness meditation training on pain awareness measuring responses that were carefully calibrated to insure reporting accuracy. Subjects who received the meditation training were compared to controls and to groups using relaxation and distraction techniques. The researchers measured changes in the subjects' rating of pain at "low" and "high" levels during the different activities, and also changes in their general sensitivity to pain through the process of calibrating responses before the activities.

While the distraction activity - which used a rigorous math task to distract subjects from the effects of the stimulus - was effective in reducing the subject's perception of "high" pain, the meditation activity had an even stronger reducing effect on high pain, and reduced the perception of "low" pain levels as well.

Further, the meditation training appeared to have an effect that continued to influence the patients after the activity was concluded, resulting in a general lowering of pain sensitivity in the subjects - a result that indicated that the effect of the meditation was substantially different from the effect of the distraction activity.

The finding follows earlier research studies that found differences in pain awareness and other mental activities among long-time practitioners of mindfulness meditation techniques.

When the reserachers re-calibrated the subjects’ pain thresholds after the training had started and they found that they felt less pain, compared to the control subjects, which  was totally surprising because a change in general sensitivity had not been part of their hypothesis. They were so surprised by the first experiment that they did two more and got a robust finding across the three experiments.

They stress that the effect the researchers measured in the meditation subjects was a lessening of pain but not a lessening of sensation. The calibration results showed little change in the meditation subjects' sensitivity to the sensation of electricity, but a significant change in what level of shock was perceived to be painful.

The researchers suspect that the mindfulness training lessens the awareness of and sensitivity to pain because it trains subjects' brains to pay attention to sensations at the present moment rather than anticipating future pain or dwelling on the emotions caused by pain, and thus reduces anxiety.
‘The mindfulness training taught them that distractions, feelings, emotions are momentary, don't require a label or judgment because the moment is already over. With the meditation training they would acknowledge the pain and realise what it is, but just let it go. They learn to bring their attention back to the present.’

Although the results are in line with past findings regarding mindfulness practitioners, they are important because they show that meditation is much easier to use for pain management than it was previously believed to be because a very short, simple course of training is all that is required in order to achieve a significant effect. Even self-administered training might be effective, according to the researchers.


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