Mindfulness Could Be an Important Strategy in Pain Reduction Toolbox

injured person reaching into first aid kit for mindfulness meditation

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • Mindfulness is an ancient practice that requires an awareness of sensory stimuli and presence in the moment.
  • Mindfulness-based therapy has been linked to both mental and physical benefits.
  • A new study identifies the mechanism that allows mindfulness meditation to relieve physical pain.

At this point, most of us are familiar with the concept of mindfulness. Through this ancient practice of focusing on sensory stimuli like our breathing or bodily sensations, we can be more present in the moment, and that can effectively reduce distress.

The benefits of mindfulness-based therapy, which have been proven through research, include stress management, greater relationship satisfaction, and decreased symptoms of depression.

Mindfulness meditation has even been used to relieve physical pain, which may come across as counterintuitive at first, since mindfulness can be about focusing on bodily sensations. But a new study exploring this function of mindfulness has revealed the underlying mechanism at work in the mind.

Researchers are excited by the potential for a safe, accessible, and non-opioid method of managing pain.

The Research

The study consisted of 40 participants who underwent brain scanning while painful heat was applied to their leg. Afterward, they were asked to rate the level of pain they felt during the experiment.

Participants were then split into two randomized groups. One group completed four mindfulness training sessions, while the second group simply listened to an audiobook.

After completing their sessions, participants once again underwent brain scanning during the application of painful heat to their leg. This time, the mindfulness group was instructed to meditate during the experiment, while the second group was instructed to rest with their eyes closed.

The results showed a significant reduction in neural and behavioral pain responses for the mindfulness group when compared to the control group. Participants reported a 33% reduction in pain unpleasantness and 32% reduction in pain intensity.

Kiana Shelton, LCSW

The goal is that consistent use of a mindful meditation practice could make one’s brain more tolerant of pain.

— Kiana Shelton, LCSW

Researchers explain that the pain relief was moderated by weakening the connection between the thalamus and the precuneus, which are areas of the brain related to sensory environment and the "quality of awareness of self."

By separating the feelings of pain from the sense of self through mindfulness meditation, participants were able to alleviate their discomfort.

"You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we're now finally seeing how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain," said lead study author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, in a release.

The Brain and Pain

Pain interacts with the brain on many levels. Our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight or flight mechanism, is linked to the way we respond to the perception of pain or anticipatory stress.

Kiana Shelton, a licensed clinical social worker with Mindpath Health, points out that when we meditate, we begin to calm that system. And when this happens, we can transition into our parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS.

"The PNS is what allows us to rest and relax," Shelton says.

"The goal is that consistent use of a mindful meditation practice could make one’s brain more tolerant of pain by being able to bring your PNS online faster through a meditation practice," she explains.

Kiana Shelton, LCSW

Mindfulness meditation is the ultimate exercise.

— Kiana Shelton, LCSW

Whether you start a mindfulness meditation practice in a psychotherapy session or by looking it up on YouTube, "no effort goes unnoticed by the body," Shelton says. Like a muscle, the mind will get stronger and improve with practice and repetition.

"Mindfulness meditation is the ultimate exercise," she says.

"When we live with pain, sometimes it is our negative or anticipatory thoughts about the pain that intensify their impact physiologically. I remind clients to never underestimate the power of intention and mindfulness as a determining factor in one's ability to reach a desired goal."

It's important to note, however, that mindfulness is not a one-size-fits-all strategy.

People often put pressure on themselves to excel at meditation when first beginning a mindfulness practice, and this can actually increase stress.

Starting out with short periods of practice and even trying methods outside of meditation like journaling, yoga, or walking outdoors can increase the likelihood that you'll see its benefits.

What This Means For You

Pain, whether it's chronic or short-lived, can have serious mental health effects. This research confirms that mindfulness meditation can help alleviate pain even if you're new to the practice. Consistency is key when it comes to developing your mindfulness skills, and practicing on a regular basis will yield great results.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Winter F, Steffan A, Warth M, Ditzen B, Aguilar‐Raab C. Mindfulness‐based couple interventions: A systematic literature reviewFam Proc. 2021;60(3):694-711. doi:10.1111/famp.12683

  2. Riegner G, Posey G, Oliva V, Jung Y, Mobley W, Zeidan F. Disentangling self from pain: Mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief is driven by thalamic-default mode network decouplingPain. 2022. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002731

  3. Galante J, Friedrich C, Dawson AF, et al. Mindfulness-based programmes for mental health promotion in adults in nonclinical settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.  Patel V, ed. PLoS Med. 2021;18(1)e1003481. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1003481