Researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine, University of Oregon and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center have found that mindfulness meditation — long known to help reduce pain — works by engaging a neural pathway that is completely separate from the one targeted by opioid pain relievers.
These results not only explain how mindfulness meditation can successfully aid those with chronic pain, but also may help researchers find alternative, less addictive drugs to treat pain. Since opioids and mindfulness meditation work on two distinct pain pathways, it might also be valuable to combine traditional opioid painkillers with mindfulness-based approaches.
The results of the study were published in The Journal of Neuroscience this March.
What is mindfulness meditation?
When most people think of meditation, they picture sitting in a dark room and emptying their brain of all thoughts. With mindfulness meditation, the aim isn’t to stop thinking — it’s to allow thoughts to come freely without judgment.
To perform mindfulness meditation:
The researchers investigated the pain response in 78 healthy adults. Participants were either instructed to meditate while experiencing painful stimuli or to simply “close (their) eyes and relax until the end of the experiment.” Half of the participants in each group were injected with naloxone, a drug that blocks the body’s natural stash of opioids, whereas the other half received a saline solution.
Participants who meditated while experiencing the painful stimuli reported significantly lower pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings when compared to those who did not meditate. Most importantly, however, individuals who meditated during the experiment experienced this pain relief regardless of whether or not they received naloxone.
In other words, naloxone did nothing to stop the pain relieving effects of mindfulness meditation, even though it prevented the body from using endogenous opioids.
What does this mean?
Mindfulness meditation reduces pain without using the body’s natural stash of opioids. This suggests that opioids — whether endogenous or injected — are not the only way to meaningfully reduce pain. (Although clinicians sometimes use NSAIDs such as aspirin to treat pain, opioids tend to be far more powerful and effective.) This alternative pain pathway may help researchers unveil alternative painkillers that are less addictive than opioids.
These results also suggest that — should a person be in considerable pain — prescribing both opioids and mindfulness meditation may provide synergistic benefits, since they operate through distinct pathways. In other words, rather than upping the dosage of opioids to get more relief, people can begin practicing mindfulness meditation in addition to receiving medication. For people who are experiencing lower levels of pain, mindfulness meditation itself may prove sufficient. This knowledge is especially useful, since the CDC is attempting to reduce the amount of opioids prescribed to each patient.
In summary, mindfulness meditation not only reduces pain, but it does so without activating the opioid pain pathway. Only the future knows how this exciting new research will shift the way we deal with pain management.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.