What Is Neuroplasticity of the Brain and How Can It Help My Pain?

Growing research on the brain’s flexibility means that mindfulness practices such as meditation are not just trends, but they truly have the potential to help deliver relief.


It’s clear that we are living in an age of mindfulness, or at least, an age of seeking mindfulness. Neurological research continues to show the benefits of meditation and other mindful practices on individual well-being, and these benefits are largely due to the neuroplasticity of the brain. PPM spoke to Joseph Wielgosz, PhD, a psychiatry fellow at both the VA Palo Alto Care System and Stanford University, and an affiliated researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds. A lead researcher in the field of neuroplasticity, who recently published a review on “Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology,”* Dr. Wielgosz explains how it all works and why it should matter to individuals living with chronic pain.

“The brain used to be thought of as a fixed entity. However, the more we learn about it, the more we understand how dynamic it is. All the cells in our brain are constantly adjusting and tuning themselves as we learn and act,” he says. “This means practices like meditation can work as a mental equivalent of going to a gym to build your body’s fitness. Training in any practice over time results in changes to ways that neurons signal each other and brain regions connect. Mindfulness meditation and other mindful practices have been shown to do this in a way that is associated with better ability to regulate emotions and attention.”

The brain's ability to grow and adapt can help, along with other therapies, those with chronic pain learn to alter their response to pain. Source: 123RF

In fact, there are many hypotheses as to how neuroplasticity may help to improve an individual’s response to pain. For instance, someone could learn to fear movement less, to respond to pain stimuli differently, and so forth. Indeed, explains Dr. Wielgosz, “the same brain circuits which shape our emotions also shape the experience of pain. In chronic pain syndromes, for example, we know there are shifts in the connectivity of emotion-related circuits, which come to play a heightened role in pain experience. Practices which train the mind have the potential to counteract these shifts, reducing the sensitization and distress associated with pain.”

Moreover, he says that these same practices can have benefits for problems that often accompany chronic pain, such as depression, anxiety, and substance use.

It’s important to be aware that mindfulness training is not a cure-all, but rather, should be considered one tool in a larger toolbox of pain management therapies. In the coming years, Dr. Wielgosz says he hopes that researchers like those on his team will have a better hold on how and why mindfulness practice changes pain response. “When you meditate, many systems in your mind and body are affected. Breathing, body position, mental focus, and the way you relate to your thoughts could all affect how you experience pain. In my work, I have used brain imaging and measures of physiology to sift out how much each of these factors is responsible for changes in pain after mindfulness training. This will help tailor the way we deliver mindfulness training in the future to be even more effective.”

Dr. Wielgosz

So if your doctor recommends meditation, try not to automatically assume that he or she is suggesting the pain is “all in your head.” “This is not the case,” advises Dr. Wielgosz. “We know that pain involves complex relationships between your mind, brain, and body. When you learn meditation practices, you are learning to work with those relationships in ways that can bring you relief. Several decades of research studies give evidence that many patients have found this practice to work for them.” As an added bonus, you can practice mindfulness anywhere, anytime.

Updated on: 04/21/20
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