Can mindfulness make you less sensitive to pain? A study conducted at Wake Forest School of Medicine may have the answer.
In this follow up of a 2015 study that compared the effects of mindfulness meditation to a placebo pain reliever, researchers looked to see if a person’s natural tendency to be mindful – or dispositional mindfulness - might be linked to differences in pain sensitivity. They also examined brain scans to see if mindfulness was related to how the brain responds to unpleasant sensations.
In the original study, 76 healthy adults who had never meditated were asked to report their inherent tendency to be mindful using the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory. They were then exposed to alternating bursts of painful – about 120degrees- and moderate heat on their legs while undergoing an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scan. Participants also gave feedback about the intensity and unpleasantness of their pain.
When it comes to mindfulness, higher dispositional scores were associated with feeling less pain intensity and unpleasantness. Mindfulness was also related to different patterns of brain activation in the posterior cingulate cortex, a region linked to processing noxious sensations. Specifically, more mindful individuals had less activation in this area and correspondingly experienced less pain.
The default mode network, which extends from the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex to the medial prefrontal cortex, is associated with mind wandering and self-focus, and is directly impacted by pain. The region has also been found to be less active in regular meditators suggesting that they’re less prone to rumination.
The practice of mindfulness helps foster our ability to experience emotions and sensations without becoming overly attached to them. In the brain, this translates to the default mode network being less active. When in this state, we’re less inclined to get stuck in repetitive thoughts or obsess about painful sensations and can focus on adaptive coping strategies to life’s challenges.
People who are inherently mindful may have decreased pain sensitivity because they’re able to divert their minds away from thoughts that intensify their discomfort.
Authors of the present study, published in the journal PAIN, suggest that people who are inherently mindful may have decreased pain sensitivity because they’re able to divert their minds away from thoughts that intensify their discomfort. On the flip side, individuals with low dispositional mindfulness may pay more attention to uncomfortable sensations and be more emotionally reactive to them.
Indeed, prior studies have shown acceptance-focused strategies like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) can be effective for reducing chronic pain. This may be particularly important given research noting that adults low in dispositional mindfulness are also at increased risk for misusing opioids. Taken together this research points to mindfulness as a potential strategy for developing more effective strategies for coping with pain.