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A Disposition Toward Mindfulness Provides Pain-Relieving Benefits When Pain is Rated in Hindsight

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The pain-relieving benefits of a disposition toward mindfulness are most pronounced when people assess pain in hindsight and not immediately after it occurs, according to the findings of a new study led by researchers from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) Division of Intramural Research. The study, which was funded by NCCIH, was recently published in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Research shows that mindfulness meditation helps reduce both acute and chronic pain and that its pain-relieving benefits extend to reducing fear of pain, pain avoidance, and pain catastrophizing when someone is anticipating or experiencing pain. Less is known about the possible pain-relieving benefits offered by dispositional mindfulness—the tendency to bring nonreactive attention and present-moment awareness to life’s experiences regardless of whether a person engages in mindful practices. Dispositional mindfulness is thought to protect against acute pain.

Using the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), researchers measured the self-reported dispositional mindfulness of 131 healthy adults. Participants then received painful heat on their nondominant forearm while researchers measured physiological responses to the noxious heat. All participants rated their pain on a 0-to-10 visual analogue scale immediately after each trial. A subset of participants also completed a method of limits task and reported pain during the heat stimulus.

Upon completing all the heat testing trials, participants provided overall summary ratings of their pain experience during the trials. The researchers used the sensory and affective subscales of the short version of the McGill Pain Questionnaire (MPQ) for the summary ratings.

Dispositional mindfulness was associated with reduced pain when participants reported pain as overall summary ratings after all testing trials were completed but not when they assessed pain during or immediately after each trial. Higher dispositional mindfulness did not reduce heat-evoked pain sensitivity, as measured by pain threshold, tolerance, and ratings immediately after trials, nor did it increase or decrease pain ratings over time. Also, higher dispositional mindfulness did not reduce the sympathetic nervous system’s response to pain.

The authors concluded that the most important difference between the assessments is likely the timing. The effect of dispositional mindfulness on assessing pain in hindsight might occur because dispositional mindfulness emphasizes a nonreactive, accepting focus on pain experience without ruminating. These preliminary results, the authors say, need to be followed with more studies, including ones that look at the effects of trained mindfulness practice on different types of pain ratings and the underlying mechanisms of different ratings.

Reference

Publication Date: January 19, 2021