Mindfulness Program Boosts Pain Regulation

What’s New in Psychology?

Mindfulness Program Boosts Pain Regulation

 Jim Windell

             Since a significant proportion of Americans experience pain problems, many come to rely on the most common treatments, such as medications and invasive procedures. But medications and surgery don’t work for everyone, and, of course, these approaches have led to an epidemic of addiction to both prescription and illicit drugs.

            A more promising approach to dealing with pain is mindfulness training courses, which appears to have captured a central place in the drive for a more effective pain management. But mindfulness training is just a temporary solution with little long-term relief, right?

            Maybe not. A study, recently published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, has identified pathways in the brain specific to pain regulation on which activity is altered by an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. The research for the study took place at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds

           To measure neural pain response, study participants had their brains scanned while receiving a carefully controlled heat-based stimulus on their forearm. The researchers recorded two brain-wide signatures of pain-related activity, developed by collaborator Tor Wager, a professor of neuroscience at Dartmouth College. This innovative technique dramatically improves the ability to detect pain-related signals in the brain’s complex activity. Changes in signatures can also be more easily interpreted in psychological terms. Participants in the MBSR course showed reduction in a signature associated with the sensory intensity of pain.

           According to Joseph Wielgosz, who led the work while he was a graduate student at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, “Our finding supports the idea that for new practitioners, mindfulness training directly affects how sensory signals from the body are converted into a brain response.”

           The changes noted by Wielgosz and his colleagues were not seen in participants who took a similar course without the mindfulness instruction. Wielgosz says that this is important new evidence that the brain changes are due to the mindfulness training itself. The study, according to Wielgosz, is the first to demonstrate pain-related brain changes from a standardized mindfulness course that is widely offered in clinical settings. By practicing nonjudgmental, “present-centered” awareness of mind and body, participants can learn to respond to pain with less distress and more psychological flexibility – which can ultimately lead to reductions in pain itself.

           The study also looked at longer-term mindfulness training. Interestingly, practice on intensive meditation retreats was associated with changes in the neural signature for influences that shape pain indirectly, for example, differences in attention, beliefs and expectations – factors that often increase the perceived levels of distress in non-meditators.

           “Just like an experienced athlete plays a sport differently than a first-timer, experienced mindfulness practitioners seem to use their mental ‘muscles’ differently in response to pain than first-time meditators,” Wielgosz says. He points out that these findings help show the potential for mindfulness practice as a lifestyle behavior. Wielgosz and his associates believe that their study can also provide a model for future research, helping to untangle the complexity of pain and ultimately reduce the burden it places on our lives.

           To read the original study, find it with this reference:

Wielgosz, J., Kral, T.R.A., Perlman, D.M., Mumford, J.A., Wager, T.D., & Davidson, R.J. (2022). Neural Signatures of Pain Modulation in Short-Term and Long-Term Mindfulness Training: A Randomized Active-Control Trial. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2022; DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.21020145


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