It isn't often in science that old methods of treatment are re-centered from their otherwise un-scientific past, to present as one of the more progressively favored treatments in modern society. However, it seems as though the old practice of meditation is working to accomplish just that. Chronic pain sufferers have endlessly struggled to find methods of treatment that they are not resistant to, or that their pain does not overcome at some point. Perhaps in favor of a reduction of cost and a more "natural" method of healing, meditation was further studied--and these studies are proving most beneficial. Research has shown that by practicing a state of "mindfulness", one can achieve decreased overall pain, as well as pain intensity.
Such mindful "interventions" have aided our understanding of pain disorders (both acute and chronic). With extensive training of one's mind (meditation), it is found that one's cortical regions that are associated with pain are thickened, perhaps enhancing that persons perception of their pain. This results in changes in their normal evaluation and perception of pain. These effects of mental training can result in a more beneficial method of neuroplasticity.
But how exactly does one measure pain? Surely we do not expose trial studies of non-pain sufferers to painful stimulus in order to further science! Why of course not--in fact, what is generally used in pain studies is not in fact 'pain' at all. Experiments with temperature extremes (hot and cold) are used to test the participant's perception, durability, and sensation of a 'painful' stimulus. In a particular experiment adhering to the purpose at hand, they tested the unpleasantness of the stimulus (hot water) before and after a series of meditative exercises. However, rather than test the person's personal opinion of the pain, they tested the person's brain's perception of the pain through measurements of Cerebral Spinal Fluid, through a method called ASL. ASL is an "MRI pulse sequence that provides a measure of CBF using water as a flow tracer". Using ASL, they found OFC (orbitofrontal cortex) activation, and deactivation of the thalamus. During painful stimulus, usually the opposite occurs--a decrease in OFC and an increase in thalamus activation are seen. This study concluded that short term mediation can decrease the affect pain, and the experience that goes along with it.
It is important to take this discussion with a grain of salt. Even though these studies did work, I believe it is essential to define the term "meditation". Perhaps all it encompasses is distraction from temporary pain, having your mind focused on other things, thus rendering it less activated in the pain 'areas' of the brain. This type of treatment would not necessarily work for those who are suffering chronic pain. However, I feel more work in the field of long term mindful trainings may prove beneficial to act as a sole treatment or a combination treatment to pain disorders.
Another limitation to this experiment is the role of an adequate control group. I felt that they had no data to argue their finding against. The perception of the irritating stimulus may have simply decreased because they had already experience it once, and could therefore were more comfortable experiencing it again. It is crucial to create a group that simply received both tests without any meditation, to see what the conclusion of diminished pain was really measuring. Nevertheless, to whatever degree this breakthrough is effective, one conclusion is for sure--studying mediation and perception of pain enables us to further understand just how our brain handles painful or noxious stimulus. Hopefully we are able to use such methods of research (such as ASL) in order to provide helpful, more affordable treatment for the individuals suffering from pain disorders.