Ever since mindfulness became a well-known concept in medical research around 1985, studies of meditation and pain have been central to today’s contemplative neuroscience.
Below is a table with an updated overview of the neurological effects meditation has on pain. The main source is the study Neuromodulatory treatments for chronic pain: efficacy and mechanisms published in Nature in 2014, but the number of studies has grown since then. The most important updates are a greater insight into how the default mode network works in relation to pain and the recognition that pain perception changes occur via several unique brain mechanisms even after only one week of training for inexperienced meditators.
I have added two columns to the original table. Firstly, I have simplified the technical, medical language, so it becomes easier to read. And on the far right, there is a column that describes the effects through concepts we use in mindfulness teaching.
In addition to these brain functions, meditation has several other effects on the body that affect chronic pain: reducing inflammation and regulating stress hormones, sleep, blood pressure, and heart rate. A particularly interesting study in today’s opioid crisis shows that meditation’s pain-reducing effect does not come from the body’s own opiates.
If you want to learn more, I have previously written a basic description of how meditation helps with chronic pain and an introduction to meditation as pain relief.
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Zeidan F, Salomons T, Farris SR, Emerson NM, Adler- Neal, A, Jung Y, Coghill RC. Neural Mechanisms Supporting the Relationship between Dispositional Mindfulness and Pain. PAIN, 2018; 1 DOI: 10.1097 / j.pain.0000000000001344