Skip to content

The role of heart rate variability in mindfulness-based pain relief


Mindfulness meditation is a self-regulatory practice premised on sustaining non-reactive awareness of arising sensory events that reliably reduces pain. Yet, the specific analgesic mechanisms supporting mindfulness have not been comprehensively disentangled from the potential non-specific factors supporting this technique. Increased parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity is associated with pain relief corresponding to a number of cognitive manipulations. However, the relationship between the PNS and mindfulness-based pain attenuation remains unknown.

The primary objective of the present study was to determine the role of high frequency heart rate variability (HF HRV), a marker of PNS activity, during mindfulness-based pain relief as compared to a validated, sham-mindfulness meditation technique that served as a breathing-based control. Sixty-two healthy volunteers (31 females; 31 males) were randomized to a four-session (25 minutes/session) mindfulness or sham-mindfulness training regimen. Before and after each group's respective training, participants were administered noxious (49°C) and innocuous (35°C) heat to the right calf. HF HRV and respiration rate were recorded during thermal stimulation and pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings were collected after each stimulation series.

The primary analysis revealed that during mindfulness meditation, higher HF HRV was more strongly associated with lower pain unpleasantness ratings when compared to sham-mindfulness meditation (B = -0.82, p = 0.04). This finding is in line with the prediction that mindfulness-based meditation engages distinct mechanisms from sham-mindfulness meditation to reduce pain. However, the same prediction was not confirmed for pain intensity ratings (B = -0.41). Secondary analyses determined that mindfulness and sham-mindfulness meditation similarly reduced pain ratings, decreased respiration rate, and increased HF HRV (between group ps < 0.05). More mechanistic work is needed to reliably determine the role of parasympathetic activation in mindfulness-based pain relief as compared to other meditative techniques.

PERSPECTIVE: Mindfulness has been shown to engage multiple mechanisms to reduce pain. The present study extends on this work to show that higher heart rate variability is associated with mindfulness-induced reductions in pain unpleasantness, but not pain intensity ratings, when compared to sham-mindfulness meditation. These findings warrant further investigation into the mechanisms engaged by mindfulness as compared to placebo.


Adler-Neal, A.L., Waugh, C.E., Garland, E.L., Shaltout, H.A., Diz, D.I., Zeidan, F.J. (2019). The role of heart rate variability in mindfulness-based pain relief. J Painpii: S1526-5900(19)30773-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2019.07.003.

Go to Journal Article

Share this article:


Last Updated: 12/12/23