TUESDAY, June 8, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- People who routinely practice meditation may be better able to deal with pain because their brains are less focused on anticipating pain, a new British study suggests.
The finding is a potential boon to the estimated 40 percent of people who are unable to adequately manage their chronic pain. It is based on an analysis involving people who practice a variety of meditation formats, and experience with meditation as a whole ranged from just a few months to several decades.
Only those individuals who had engaged in a long-term commitment to meditation were found to have gained an advantage with respect to pain relative to non-meditators.
"Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a way to treat chronic illness such as the pain caused by arthritis," study author Dr. Christopher Brown, from the University of Manchester's School of Translational Medicine, said in a university news release.
"Recently," he noted, "a mental health charity called for meditation to be routinely available on the NHS [National Health Service of Great Britain] to treat depression, which occurs in up to 50 percent of people with chronic pain. However, scientists have only just started to look into how meditation might reduce the emotional impact of pain."
The findings were released online recently in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the journal Pain.
All the forms of meditation that Brown looked at included mindfulness meditation practices, which form the basis of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which has been recommended for recurrent depression since 2004.
By using a laser to induce pain, Brown and his team found that activity in certain parts of the brain seemed to dip when the study participants anticipated pain. With that observation he was able to establish that those with upwards of 35 years of meditation under their belt anticipated pain the least.
In particular, meditators also seemed to display unusual activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain that is known for regulating attention and thought processes when a person feels threatened.
"The results of the study confirm how we suspected meditation might affect the brain," explained Brown. "Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse."
However, he added that "although we found that meditators anticipate pain less and find pain less unpleasant, it's not clear precisely how meditation changes brain function over time to produce these effects.
For more on meditation, visit the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.