Meditation: Ollie Ollerton explains simple breathing exercise
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Doctors have historically sought to cure illness by treating symptoms, and painkillers have played a significant role in this treatment. Many alternatives for pain treatment have worked by reducing pain signals sent to the brain. A new method, however, suggests that denying ownership of pain sensations could be key to reducing suffering.
Pain, which is usually worsened by inflammation, affects around 28 million British adults, which equates to nearly half of the population.
The effects of long Covid coupled with confinement to home at the peak of the pandemic, are believed to have sent these numbers spiralling.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggested last year that sufferers stop taking drugs and seek alternatives to treat their pain.
New research has now demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is an effective measure to reduce suffering.
The study, published in the journal Pain, showed that the holistic technique interrupts the communication between the areas of the brain involved in pain sensation.
In this alternative form of therapy pain signals to the brain aren’t dampened, but sufferers simply choose not to take “ownership” over the sensations, thereby reducing their suffering.
To gather their findings, researchers scanned the brains of 40 patients while painful heat was applied to their legs.
Volunteers were asked to rate their pain levels during a series of experiments experiencing various heat stimuli.
The senior author of the study, Fadel Zeidan, associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said: “One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences.
“You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we’re not finally seeing how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain.”
Researchers analysed brain activity during the experiments, which showed mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with reduced synchronisation between the thalamus – which picks up the sensory infection – and part of the default mode network – where feelings and thoughts are processed.
Researchers have long sought alternative ways to treat pain because opioids, the most common medicine, can be addictive.
What’s more, in some instances, the drugs prescribed to treat pain can inadvertently make the condition worse.
“We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects,” noted Professor Zeidan.
“This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain.”
The findings appeared to suggest that the more brain regions were deactivated or decoupled through meditation, the more pain relief the volunteer experienced.
Professor Zeidan continued: “For many struggling with chronic pain, what often affects their quality of life most is not the pain itself, but the mental suffering and frustration that comes along with it.
“Their pain becomes a part of who they are as individuals – something they can’t escape – and this exacerbates their suffering.
“We feel like we are on the verge of discovering a novel non-opioid-based pain mechanism, in which the default mode network plays a crucial role in producing analgesia.
“We are excited to continue exploring the neurobiology of mindfulness and its clinical potential across various disorders.”
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