March 17, 2010 -- Meditation increases pain tolerance, but you don't have to devote your life to the practice to derive benefits, new research shows.
Even very brief training in mindfulness meditation had a positive impact on pain perception in the study, conducted by researchers from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
They recruited college students who had never meditated before and gave them a single hour of meditation training, spread out over three consecutive days.
Over the course of three experiments, all the study participants were subjected to harmless, but somewhat painful, electric shocks of varied intensity as the session progressed.
The researchers measured the participants rating of pain at "low" and "high" levels, and they also measured changes in the participants' general sensitivity to pain.
They found that the meditation training appeared to influence pain perception even when the trained study subjects weren't meditating.
"We have seen the effect in monks who were skilled meditators," study researcher Fadel Zeidan, PhD, tells WebMD. "But it appears that you don't need extensive training to benefit. You don't have to live a monastic life or go to a cave in the Himalayas or spend thousands of dollars on training."
Meditation Reduces Pain
In the initial experiment, Zeidan says he was not too surprised to find that meditation had a positive impact on pain perception, because meditation is a distraction and distractions are known to influence pain.
"There is only so much that the brain can attend to," he says.
In another experiment, both meditation and performing math problems were found to reduce high-level pain, but only meditation reduced both high-level and low-level pain.
"This suggests meditation isn't just a distraction," Zeidan says. "It is a little more powerful than that."
The study appears in the March issue of The Journal of Pain.
Zeidan says he believes meditation is effective because it reduces emotional responses to pain, including anxiety and anticipation.
"The main idea behind mindfulness meditation is that everything is in the present moment," he says. "We know that when someone is expecting a painful stimulus they feel it more. When you focus on the breath in a relaxed way, you are essentially taking that expectation out of the equation."
3-Minute Meditation Exercise
Psychologist Elisha Goldstein, PhD, who practices in West Los Angeles, has written several books on mindfulness meditation.
He says the practice can reduce physical and emotional pain by helping people break long-held, ineffective patterns of thinking and acting.
And he is not surprised that even minimal meditation training can change the way people perceive pain.
Goldstein says people without formal training can learn the technique by practicing a three-minute exercise he calls ACE a few times a day:
- Awareness: Spend a minute becoming aware of what is happening right now in your thoughts and emotions.
- Collecting: Spend another minute collecting your attention on the breath. Notice where you are aware of the breath most prominently. For some people it will be the nostrils, for others the chest or belly.
- Expanding: Spend a third minute expanding your awareness into your physical body and noticing sensations like tingling, warmth, pulsing, pain, and coolness at individual sites.
"People who practice this two or three times a day, even when they are not experiencing stress, will be more likely to be able to grab on to it during major stress triggers," he says.