November 10, 2009
Science Daily/University of North Carolina at Charlotte
An experimental study examining the perception of pain and the effects of various mental training techniques has found that a relatively short and simple meditation method can have a significant positive effect on pain management.
Though 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 by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte shows that a single hour of training spread out over a three day period can produce the same kind of analgesic effect.
"This study is the first study to demonstrate the efficacy of such a brief intervention on the perception of pain," noted Fadel Zeidan, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UNC Charlotte and the paper's lead author. "Not only did the meditation subjects feel less pain than the control group while meditating but they also experienced less pain sensitivity while not meditating."
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.
Zeidan stresses 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 short course of meditation was very effective on pain perception," Zeidan said. "We got a very high effect size for the periods when they were meditating.
"In fact, it was kind of freaky for me. I was ramping at 400-500 milliamps and their arms would be jolting back and forth because the current was stimulating a motor nerve. Yet they would still be asking, 'A 2?' ('2' being the level of electrical shock that designates low pain) It was really surprising," he said.
Zeidan suspects 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," Zeidan noted. "With the meditation training they would acknowledge the pain, they realize what it is, but just let it go. They learn to bring their attention back to the present."
Though the results are in line with past findings regarding mindfulness practitioners, Zeidan says that the findings 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 Zeidan.
"What's neat here is that this is the briefest known way to promote a meditation state and yet it has an effect in pain management. People who want to make use of the technique might not need a meditation facilitator -- they might be able to get the necessary training off the internet, " Zeidan said. "All you have to do is use your mind, change the way you look at the perception of pain and that, ultimately, might help alleviate the feeling of that pain."