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Short periods of meditation help patients cope with pain

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

In a new study, researchers point to robust findings that short periods of meditation can help patients cope with pain. Past studies show that extensive mindfulness training can change the way pain is perceived. The study is the first to show that meditating just twenty minutes a day is a valuable intervention that can decrease pain sensitivity and decrease perception of pain.

The study comes from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. According to lead author and psychologist Fadel Zeidan, "This study is the first study to demonstrate the efficacy of such a brief intervention on the perception of pain. 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."

For the study the scientists taught meditation techniques over a period of three days, during one hour sessions. The fact that mindfulness training can be taught in such a short period of time makes the pain treatment practical and inexpensive for chronic pain sufferers.

Three separate experiments were used to measure pain perception among study participants. A series of progressively more intense and harmless shocks were given to a group who meditated and compared to groups using relaxation and distraction techniques. Pain perception was gauged as "high" or "low". Responses were calibrated before the activities to note changes in pain perception, comparing the distraction group to the meditation group.

Those in the distraction group were given difficult math questions and were found to reduce perception of high levels of pain. The meditation group was found to have a stronger response to high pain levels, in addition to decreased pain perception with low levels that persisted.

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"We knew already that meditation has significant effects on pain perception in long-term practitioners whose brains seem to have been completely changed -- we didn't know that you could do this in just three days, with just 20 minutes a day," Zeidan said.

The findings were so positive that the researchers conducted two more experiments. Zeidan says the brief period of meditation had a powerful effect for reducing pain perception. "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.

The authors say the research shows that teaching and practicing meditation to cope with pain is much easier than previously understood. "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."

Zeidan explains, "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, they realize what it is, but just let it go. They learn to bring their attention back to the present."

Learning to meditate requires no investment, and could be learned quickly for patients seeking alternative pain management. The study shows that practicing stress of living in pain by changing perception. Meditation, practiced twenty minutes a day, can be easily learned to help improve quality of life.

The Journal of Pain: doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2009.07.015