Brief Self-Compassion Training Alters Neural Responses to Evoked Pain for Chronic Low Back Pain: A Pilot Study

Author: Michael P Berry1, Jacqueline Lutz1,2, Zev Schuman-Olivier2, Christopher Germer2, Susan Pollak2, Robert R Edwards3, Paula Gardiner4, Gaelle Desbordes1, Vitaly Napadow1
Author Information:
1 A. A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, Massachusetts.
2 Center for Mindfulness and Compassion, Department of Psychiatry, Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
3 Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.
4 University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA.
Conference/Journal: Pain Med
Date published: 2020 Aug 12
Other: Special Notes: doi: 10.1093/pm/pnaa178. , Word Count: 297

Self-compassion meditation, which involves compassion toward the self in moments of suffering, shows promise for improving pain-related functioning, but its underlying mechanisms are unknown. This longitudinal, exploratory pilot study investigated the effects of a brief (eight contact hours, two weeks of home practice) self-compassion training on pain-related brain processing in chronic low back pain (cLBP).

We evaluated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) response to evoked pressure pain and its anticipation during a self-compassionate state and compared altered brain responses following training with changes on self-reported measures of self-compassion (Self-Compassion Scale [SCS]), interoceptive awareness (Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness [MAIA]), and clinical pain intensity.

In a sample of participants with cLBP (N = 20 total, N = 14 with complete longitudinal data) who underwent self-compassion training, we observed reduced clinical pain intensity and disability (P < 0.01) and increased trait self-compassion and interoceptive awareness (all P < 0.05) following training. Evoked pressure pain response in the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) was reduced following training, and decreases were associated with reduced clinical pain intensity. Further, increased fMRI responses to pain anticipation were observed in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and ventral posterior cingulate cortex (vPCC), and these increases were associated with mean post-training changes in SCS scores and scores from the body listening subscale of the MAIA.

These findings, though exploratory and lacking comparison with a control condition, suggest that self-compassion training supports regulation of pain through the involvement of self-referential (vPCC), salience-processing (TPJ), and emotion regulatory (dlPFC) brain areas. The results also suggest that self-compassion could be an important target in the psychotherapeutic treatment of cLBP, although further studies using controlled experimental designs are needed to determine the specificity of these effects.

Keywords: Cuff Pressure Pain; Mindfulness; Pain Anticipation; Posterior Cingulate Cortex; Self-Compassion; Temporo-Parietal Junction.

PMID: 32783054 DOI: 10.1093/pm/pnaa178