Is Mindfulness Meditation The Key To Drug-Free Chronic Pain Relief?

By John Lavitt 04/04/16

A new study examines mindfulness meditation as an effective drug-free relief option for the 25 million Americans living with chronic pain. 

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Is Mindfulness Meditation The Key To Drug-Free Chronic Pain Relief?
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A new study has revealed how mindfulness meditation can foster effective pain relief by working on a different neural pathway than opioid pain relievers.

Funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the results of the study suggest that combining mindfulness-based techniques and pharmacologic pain-relieving approaches may be particularly effective in treating pain. Since they operate on different pain pathways, the researchers highlighted how opioid and non-opioid mechanisms of pain relief can be employed synergistically.

The study, published in March in the Journal of Neuroscience, was able to shed light on how exactly meditation delivers pain relief. Past research has already demonstrated that meditation can help relieve pain, but the results of this study go a step further, providing evidence that there is a non-opioid process in the brain by which meditation works to reduce pain. 

To help distinguish whether meditation works by engaging the brain's opioid receptors or on a different pathway altogether, the researchers divided 78 healthy adults into four treatment groups. 

1. Meditation plus naloxone

2. Control plus naloxone

3. Meditation plus saline

4. Control plus saline

They recorded the participants' responses to painful heat stimuli as they received either the opioid antagonist naloxone or a saline placebo. Naloxone, which blocks the transmission of opioid activity, proved to be the key in understanding how meditation was not related to opioids. The researchers found that blocking the brain's opioid receptors with naloxone had no effect on the pain-relieving effects of meditation. This demonstrates that mindfulness meditation works on a different pain pathway in the brain than opioid pain relievers.  

People in the control groups were instructed to “close your eyes and relax until the end of the experiment.” The participants who meditated during saline administration showed significantly lower pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings compared to those who did not meditate while receiving saline. The same held true for naloxone—participants who both meditated and received naloxone showed "significantly greater reductions in pain intensity and unpleasantness than the control groups."

Additionally, the researchers found no significant differences in reduced pain between the group that meditated while receiving saline and the group that meditated while receiving naloxone. Meditation worked similarly in both groups.

Though we have yet to identify the exact biochemical pathways by which meditation works to achieve pain relief, this research opens the door to further research into innovative and non-traditional approaches to pain relief, said Wen G. Chen, NCCIH's program director for extramural research, in a statement. "Future studies that uncover the biochemical nature of such a non-opioid process would provide us with a new set of molecular targets for pain management and offer us the unprecedented opportunity to optimize the analgesic effect of mindfulness meditation," she wrote.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.