Mindfulness meditation is related to sensory-affective uncoupling of pain in trained novice and expert practitioners.

Author: Zorn J1, Abdoun O1, Bouet R1, Lutz A1
1Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre, INSERM U1028, CNRS, UMR5292, Lyon 1 University, Centre Hospitalier Le Vinatier (Bât. 452), 95 Bd Pinel, 69675, Bron, Cedex, France.
Conference/Journal: Eur J Pain.
Date published: 2020 Apr 20
Other: Special Notes: doi: 10.1002/ejp.1576. [Epub ahead of print] , Word Count: 345

BACKGROUND: Mindfulness meditation can alleviate acute and chronic pain. It has been proposed that mindfulness meditation reduces pain by uncoupling sensory and affective pain dimensions. However, studies to date have reported mixed results, possibly due to a diversity of styles of and expertise in mindfulness meditation. Furthermore, the interrelations between mindfulness meditation and pain catastrophizing during acute pain remain little known.

METHODS: This cross-sectional study investigated the effect of a style of mindfulness meditation called Open Monitoring on sensory and affective pain experience by comparing novice (2-day formal training; average ~20h practice) to expert practitioners (>10.000h practice). We implemented a paradigm that was designed to amplify the cognitive-affective aspects of pain experience by the manipulation of pain anticipation and uncertainty of stimulus length (8s or 16s thermal pain stimuli). We collected pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings and assessed trait pain catastrophizing with the Pain Catastrophizing Scale (PCS).

RESULTS: Across groups, mindfulness meditation reduced unpleasantness but not intensity ratings compared to attentional distraction. Experts reported a lower score on PCS, reduced amplification of unpleasantness by long painful stimuli, and larger sensory-affective uncoupling than novices particularly during long painful stimuli. In experts, meditation-induced uncoupling spilled over the control condition. Across groups and task conditions, a higher score on PCS predicted lower sensory-affective uncoupling during long painful stimuli and higher ratings of pain intensity during short painful stimuli.

CONCLUSION: These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation specifically down-regulates pain affect as opposed to pain intensity, and that pain catastrophizing undermines sensory-affective uncoupling of pain.

SIGNIFICANCE: In this study, we found that a style of mindfulness meditation referred to as Open Monitoring reduced unpleasantness but not intensity ratings compared to attentional distraction in trained novice (state effect) and expert meditators (state and trait effects). We also observed that trait pain catastrophizing scores predicted this sensory-affective uncoupling. These findings advance our understanding of the cognitive mechanisms underlying mindfulness meditation and can inform treatment strategies for chronic pain.

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KEYWORDS: Mindfulness meditation; pain affect; pain catastrophizing; sensory intensity; thermal pain

PMID: 32311185 DOI: 10.1002/ejp.1576