A new study shows as little as an hour of mindfulness training is enough to reduce pain.
"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," says researcher Fadel Zeidan, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, in a news release.
"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," says Zeidan.
In the study, published in the Journal of Pain, a group of 22 college students received three, 20-minute mindfulness training sessions over the course of three days.
In three different experiments, researchers compared their responses to mild electrical shocks to the forearm with the responses of a similar group of students that was not trained in meditation; the untrained group was instructed to relax or given math problems as a distraction.
The shocks had different intensities, and researchers measured changes in the participants' rating of "high" and "low" levels of pain as well as changes in general pain sensitivity.
Overall, the results showed mindfulness meditation training reduced the pain ratings of both "high" and "low" levels of pain more than math distraction and relaxation techniques. Math distraction improved pain ratings of “high” levels of pain, but not “low” levels of pain. Relaxation didn’t affect pain ratings for either “high” or “low” levels of pain.
In addition, researchers say the meditation training seemed to have reduced general pain sensitivity even after the experiments were over. Participants who were mindful tended to be less anxious on subjective assessments.
Zeidan says the mindfulness training lessened the awareness and sensitivity to pain by reducing anxiety and teaching people to pay attention to the sensations at present rather than anticipating future pain.
"The mindfulness training taught them that distractions, feelings, emotions are momentary, don't require a label or judgment because the moment is already over," Zeidan says in the news release. "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."