Mindfulness Can Help Taper Opioid Use, Study Says

By Kelly Burch 07/05/17

A new study examined the impact that psychological care and practicing mindfulness had on opioid use.

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A new study shows that psychological care and mindfulness practice can help pain patients taper off their use of opioid pain relievers.

The study, published in The Canadian Journal of Pain, looked at 343 patients who were at high risk for developing chronic pain and having long-term opioid use after surgery. The two-year study found that all patients showed reductions in pain and anxiety, but those who also received psychological services had greater reductions in opioid use and improved mood. The patients were part of the pain program at Toronto General Hospital (TGH) and University Health Network (UHN).

Researchers say the study demonstrates the need for doctors to focus on quality of life as they help patients decrease their reliance on opioids. 

"If we lower how many opioids patients are taking, but leave them disabled and not able to live their lives, that is not helpful," said Dr. Aliza Weinrib, one of the authors of the study and a clinical psychologist who developed the psychology program and teaches it to surgical patients at TGH. "Patients can learn to respond to their pain in a different way, making it less overwhelming. They don't have to be so tied to their medications."

Patients in the study who were receiving a high dose of opioids but were willing to consider tapering off were taught coping skills grounded in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The therapy encouraged the patients to engage in meaningful activities, instead of just focusing on reducing pain. It also taught them to use mindfulness to accept difficult experiences, including pain. 

Patients who participated in the psychology program initially reported higher opioid use, anxiety, depression, and higher sensitivity to pain. However, after the program, they showed greater reductions in opioid use, depression and fewer disruptions in their daily lives as a result of their pain than those patients who received physician-guided treatment alone.

"There's the pain in your body, and there's the pain in your heart about not being able to do the things that you love," Dr. Weinrib said. "We can help people move towards what is important to them, even through their pain. We can help people reduce their pain of not living."

Paul Ross, 60, explained how the program affected his life. "This program has given me the tools to live a fuller life despite my pain,” he said. “I practice mindfulness; I can talk to people there who understand me. For the first time in a long time, I have alternatives to simply increasing opioids, and practical tools to counter my despair. They gave me hope.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.