It has long been known that specific breathing techniques can help with various health conditions, including pain management. But a new study from the researchers at the University of Michigan set out to compare two types of meditative breathing to find their effect on pain.
Researchers looked at two meditative breathing types, the first was traditional mindful breathing and virtual reality, and the second was 3D guided mindful breathing to reduce pain.
In the traditional breathing group, it was found that the functional connection with the brain’s frontal regions had increased. This was due to the body’s focus on internal sensory details called interoception.
This focus competed with the external pain signals and inhibited the ability of the brain to process pain. These findings outline the common assumption that mindful breathing helps to refocus the mind’s attention to the physical sensation of an internal function.
Participants wore special glasses for the virtual reality group and watched a pair of virtual reality 3D lungs while breathing mindfully. This provided an audio and visual external stimulus. It was found that pain decreased when the brain’s sensory regions engaged with the virtual reality sound and image stimulations. This process is called exteroception and can weaken the pain process function in the brain.
“I was surprised that both meditative breathing methods decreased pain sensitivity, but oppositely in the brain, like yin and yang,” said professor Alexandre DaSilva. “One by engaging the brain in an immersive exterior 3D experience of our own breathing, or exteroception–yang, and the other by focusing on our interior world, interoception–yin.”
No Learning Curve
Although both approaches decreased pain sensitivity, traditional mindful breathing showed that it may require long-time attention and focus on an abstract experience. Virtual reality breathing on the other hand might be more accessible, especially for beginners, because it lends an immersive auditory and visual guide for the meditation experience. In other words, there is no learning curve with the virtual experience.
Many regions process pain in the brain. This research helps physicians to understand some of these regions that can be externally targeted. DaSilva’s research group is now working on options to deliver this virtual reality breathing experience to patients beyond the lab space.
By creating a virtual reality breathing experience via mobile application, researchers believe they can provide pain relief to many patients who are struggling. The goal with mindfulness experiences is to help those who suffer from chronic pain without the use of medication.