Meditation Relieves Pain, But Differently Than Opioids

Non-pharmacologic approaches to pain relief are always welcome, but options are limited, and those that are available do not always provide adequate analgesia.

Non-pharmacologic approaches to pain relief are always welcome, but options are limited, and those that are available do not always provide adequate analgesia. Recently published study results offer additional evidence supporting meditation as an effective means of providing pain relief without the risk of misuse, abuse, and addiction.

When the body is injured, the endogenous opioid system produces endorphins and other natural opioids that provide analgesia. Acupuncture, placebo, and even hypnosis are cognitive-based pain relief strategies that have been shown to work through the same system. Earlier this year, researchers found that mindful meditation is more effective at relieving pain than placebo. The same team is back at it to find out if meditation uses the natural opioid production system to provide that relief.

“Our team has demonstrated across four separate studies that meditation, after a short training period, can reduce experimentally induced pain,” lead author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said in a news release.

The researchers recruited 78 people without pain, as detailed in The Journal of Neuroscience. The participants received one of four therapies: meditation with naloxone, non-meditation control with naloxone, meditation with a placebo, non-meditation control with placebo. During the four-day, 20-minutes sessions, thermal probes administered heat at 120.2° F — a temperature that most people find very painful.

  • Related: CDC Says Hold Off on Opioids for Chronic Pain Treatment

Naloxone is used in emergency situations to reverse a narcotic overdose and works by blocking the body’s opioid receptors. It turns out that the participants who received meditation with naloxone had a 24% decrease in pain ratings. This indicates that even when the drug blocked the opioid receptors, the participants still had a reduction in pain from the meditation.

“Our finding was surprising and could be important for the millions of chronic pain sufferers who are seeking a fast-acting, non-opiate-based therapy to alleviate their pain,” Zeidan continued.

Patients who did meditation with placebo had a 21% reduction in pain. As for the non-meditation groups, they had an increase of pain no matter if they received naloxone or placebo. This indicates that meditation was the common factor among the groups that actually experienced pain relief.

Zeidan believes that meditation can be used along with traditional analgesic drugs in order to avoid the potentially addictive side effects of opiates. The team plans to move forward with these findings to uncover how mindfulness meditation impacts different chronic pain conditions.

Also on MD Magazine >>> Finding New Ways to Treat Pain, Video Interview at HackensackUMC