Meditation: could it replace opioids for pain relief?


Meditation: could it replace opioids for pain relief?


The US is currently in what has been described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an opioid epidemic. Now, a new study investigates alternative forms of pain relief and concludes that mindfulness meditation is an effective way to reduce pain.

Even when the body's opioid receptors are chemically blocked, meditation is able to significantly reduce pain by using a completely different pathway, researchers say.

According to the Institute of Medicine, around 100 million Americans experience chronic pain, costing over $600 billion each year.

When the body feels pain, the natural production of opioids in the body is its main source for blocking pain. 

In the new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina say cognitive-based approaches - such as hypnosis, acupuncture, distraction and even a placebo response - have been shown to reduce pain.

They wanted to investigate whether meditation also uses the body's natural production of opioids to reduce pain.

 'Findings significant for those who have built a tolerance to opiates'


To conduct their study, the researchers - led by Fadel Zeidan, PhD - injected 78 healthy, pain-free study subjects with either a drug called naloxene that blocks the pain-reducing effects of opioids or a saline placebo.

They divided the subjects into four treatment groups during the 4-day trial: 

  • Meditation plus naloxene
  • Non-meditation control plus naloxene
  • Meditation plus saline placebo
  • Non-meditation control plus placebo.

To generate pain in the study subjects, the researchers used a thermal probe to heat a part of the participants' skin to 120.2 °F - a level of heat considered very painful. The participants then used a sliding scale to rate their pain.

Results showed that patients in the meditation group that received the naloxone experienced pain ratings that were reduced by 24% from the baseline measurement.

Zeidan says these findings are significant as they demonstrate how, even when the body's opioid receptors are chemically blocked, meditation is able to significantly reduce pain by using a completely different pathway.

Other results revealed that participants in the meditation group who received the placebo-saline injection also had pain ratings that were reduced by 21%. 

However, participants in the non-meditation control groups reported increases in pain, whether they received the naloxone or placebo-saline injection.

Zeidan says their results have demonstrated that meditation can reduce induced pain. "And now this study shows that meditation doesn't work through the body's opioid system," he says, stating:

?"This study adds to the growing body of evidence that something unique is happening with how meditation reduces pain. These findings are especially significant to those who have built up a tolerance to opiate-based drugs and are looking for a non-addictive way to reduce their pain."

He and his team would like to investigate if and how meditation can affect other chronic pain conditions in future studies. He says they "believe that meditation could be used in conjunction with other traditional drug therapies to enhance pain relief without it producing the addictive side effects and other consequences that may arise from opiate drugs."

They conclude their study by noting that it is the first one to demonstrate that mindfulness-related pain relief is distinct from placebo pain relief.



Mindfulness meditation-based pain relief employs different neural mechanisms than placebo and sham mindfulness meditation-induced analgesia, Fadel Zeidan et al., Journal of Neuroscience, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2542-15.2015, published online 18 November 2015, abstract.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center news release, accesed 16 March 2016 via Newswise.

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