Meditation reduces anticipation of pain, as well as negative judgments about pain, according to a study published in the journal Pain (2010; doi:10.1016/j.pain.2010.04.017). Research findings have shown that mindfulness meditation training helps people reduce their experience of pain. But scientists have been unclear whether this lessened pain response results from less anticipation of pain—from being able to stay more clearly focused in the present—or whether there is an actual reduction in the experience of pain. This study’s purpose was to use high-density electrophysiology to measure brain activity during the anticipation of pain and during the actual pain experience and then to compare the reactions of a nonmeditating control group with the responses of experienced meditators.
Researchers from the University of Manchester, in England, divided 27 subjects into two groups based on meditation experience. Control group members had no prior meditation experience; among meditation subjects, prior experience was varied, but each practitioner practiced some type of meditation that involved sustained, focused attention as a primary feature. Scientists administered the same pain stimuli to all subjects as EEG recordings were taken. Data analysis showed that the meditation group produced less anticipatory reaction to pain than the control group. No conclusive between-group findings could be made regarding the actual experience of pain, however.
Limitations of the study included its small sample size, lack of consistency among meditation subjects’ specific practices and whether the personality traits of the meditators, rather than the meditation practice itself, affected the results. Christopher Brown, PhD, lead study author, said, “People who experience chronic or persistent pain may benefit from meditation-based therapies. Experiencing the raw sensation of pain can be useful; for example, when exercising, pain is useful for alerting you that you might be overexerting yourself and damaging your body. It’s the unpleasantness of pain and the emotional consequences of that—for example, anxiety and depression—that need to be reduced. That’s what meditation appears to selectively target. Unfortunately, our study doesn’t prove that the reduced emotional perception of pain and the reduced anticipation of pain are caused by meditation practice. We just compared a meditating group with a nonmeditating group. Hence, other factors may have influenced the results; for example, there may be already something different about people who take up a meditation practice.”
Study authors recommended further research to test the causal relationship between meditation, pain anticipation and pain experience, using experiments that assess pain processing independently from anticipation.