Science & Tech

According to fMRI scans, mindfulness reduces the degree to which a patient is preoccupied by their pain. Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum.
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A study led by University of Ottawa (U of O) researchers found that chronic pain is manageable through mindfulness. 

Led by Dr. Andra Smith, a full-time professor in the School of Psychology at the U of O, the study evaluated 11 breast cancer survivors with chronic neuropathic pain (CNP) who were randomly selected for an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR). 

Patients who undergo treatment for breast cancer often endure nerve damage which results in ‘neuropathic pain.’ This sort of pain, “presents itself as sensations” which include, “burning or tingling, numbness, or even shooting pain.” 

Patients who are treated for breast cancer might experience nerve damage and neuropathic pain because of, “surgery, radiation treatment, or chemotherapy,” said Dr. Smith. Also, “there is a really high incidence of CNP in women [who are treated for breast cancer], even a year after their treatment.”

“I think there’s a misperception that mindfulness entails sitting on a pillow and meditating. […] So I know that mindfulness seems like a fad. And oftentimes people disregard it as such”, said Dr. Smith. 

She explained, however, that “mindfulness is an exercise for your brain. You’re training your brain to calm stress responses.” Mindfulness means to “focus on what is happening to you in the present. It’s a non-judgemental state of mind.” 

“I also think [mindfulness is] a way of life. And it doesn’t take much effort. You just need to pay attention to your breath. It’s a powerful technique that makes you feel calm and grounded in this stressful world.”

According to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, mindfulness reduces the degree to which a patient is preoccupied by their pain. 

In short, this study found a correlation between a patient’s participation in the MSBR program and the reduction of activity in areas of the brain associated with pain response, emotional regulation, and cognitive processing. 

As senior author, Dr. Smith and her laboratory were responsible for producing brain scans for the study. 

“With brain imaging, I wanted to provide empirical evidence that mindfulness actually does change the brain. That was the goal of the study and that is what we found,” said Dr. Smith. 

“But I was still surprised by the significant changes in these womens’ brains after only eight weeks of [mindfulness] practice.”

“I still get goosebumps when I think about it. I did the happy dance in the hall outside the office because I was so excited by the results.”

Dr. Erin Cordeiro is the medical director of The Rose Ages Breast Health Centre at The Ottawa Hospital. And, like Dr. Smith, she also noticed the high number of breast cancer patients who experience CNP. 

“The vast majority of breast cancer patients will undergo surgery at some point in their cancer treatment journey,” she said. “Between five to 10 percent of [those] patients will have CNP after breast surgery.” 

However, Dr. Cordeiro also said “post-treatment pain is common” because all treatment options for breast cancer patients can cause CNP. This means that CNP is not exclusively linked to breast surgery. 

She also thinks that mindfulness will be further integrated into recovery plans for women who experience CNP. 

“We see a lot of patients who would prefer a more holistic approach to their cancer treatment. So, I think a lot of women want to avoid taking medication and [gravitate] to alternative treatment programs like mindfulness.”

The team was very happy when they saw positive results, but the work isn’t over yet.

“I was very happy to be able to provide empirical evidence to show how mindfulness helps [people who are overcoming breast cancer]”, said Dr. Smith.“I’d like to continue this research. And I’d like to learn about how mindfulness impacts [those afflicted] by other types of cancer.”