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Mindfulness and the Descending Modulation of Pain

The following comes to us from Carolyn McManus, PT, MS, MA, our resident expert in the power of mindfulness and it's applications to rehabilitation. Carolyn was recently featured in a video from the Journal of the American Medical Association for her contributions to a newly published research article. Join Carolyn at her course, Mindfulness Based Pain Treatment: A Biopsychosocial Approach to the Treatment of Chronic Pain on May 14th and 15th in California's Bay Area!

Neuroimaging studies show that cortical and sub-cortical brain regions associated with cognitive and emotional processing connect directly with descending pain modulating circuits arising in the brainstem. As diminished nociceptive inhibition by descending pain modulation is a likely contributing factor to the persistence of pain, these cortical and sub-cortical connections to relevant brainstem regions provide a means by which maladaptive cognitive and emotional processing can contribute to the persistence of pain1. It is possible that strategies to help patients self-regulate cognitions and emotions could promote pain reduction through restoring the balance between excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms of the descending pain modulatory system.

To be mindful is to rest the mind in the present moment with stability and acceptance and without additional cognitive or emotional elaboration. Mindful body awareness is a central component. Training in mindful awareness has been shown to improve attention regulation, emotional processing and body awareness and contribute to reduced pain intensity, catastrophizing, depression and anxiety2,3,4,5. Training in mindfulness has also been shown to modulate brain activity in areas associated with body awareness and pain processing6,7. It is possible that the adaptive modulation of cortical and sub-cortical areas engaged with mindful cognitive, emotional and physical self-regulation could contribute to reducing pain through improving the balance between excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms of the descending pain modulatory system.

One of my patients reflected the clinical benefits of mindfulness training when he said, “I needed to learn how to not freak out when my exercises or daily activities increased my pain. Focusing my mind on the present moment was enormously helpful. I would tell myself, “Breathe. Just be here. Calm down.” By breathing and relaxing I could take control of how I was reacting and I immediately saw a difference. My pain did not increase out of control.”

I am thrilled to be sharing my 30+ year experience in mindfulness and patient care in my upcoming course through Herman and Wallace.

1. Ossipov M, Morimura K, Porreca F. Descending pain modulation and chronification of pain. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care 2014;8(2):143-151.
2. Holzel BK, Lazar SW, Guard T, et al. How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspect Psychol Science. 2011;6: 537–559.
3. Reiner K, Tibi L, Lipsitz JD. Do mindfulness-based interventions reduce pain intensity? A critical review of the literature. Pain Med. 2013 Feb;14(2):230-42.
4. Lakhan SE, Schofield KL. Mindfulness-based therapies in the treatment of somatization disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2013 Aug 26;8(8):e71834.
5. Schutze , Slater H, O’Sullivan P, et al. Mindfulness-based functional therapy: A preliminary open trial of an integrated model of care for people with persistent low back pain. Front Psychol. 2014 Aug 4;5:839.
6. Zeidan F, Martucci KT, Kraft RA, et al. Brain mechanisms supporting modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. J Neurosci. 2011 Apr 6;31(14):5540-8.
7. Nakata H, Sakamoto K, Kakigi R. Meditation reduces pain-related activity in the anterior cingulated cortex, insula, secondary somatosensory cortex and thalamus. Front psychol. 2014;5:1489.

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