For years now researchers have been looking at cognitive-based approaches to pain relief. There have been success with interventions using hypnosis, acupuncture and distraction, and of course, the placebo effect shows that the body can, on occasion, heal itself.
The effect isn’t magic — it is down to the opioids. The body produces these naturally to block pain.
A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has looked at whether or not mindfulness meditation also stimulates the production of opioids, helping us to negate pain.
The obvious answer would seem to be yes. After all, like hypnosis and distraction, mindfulness engages the brain. But read on…
The study, conducted by Dr Fadel Zeidan at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that does not use the opioid system to reduce pain.
“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 said.
However, this didn’t mean that meditation didn’t reduce pain.
In a double-blinded study, 78 pain-free volunteers were given drug called naloxone or a placebo. Naloxone stops the pain-reducing effects of the body’s opioids, which means anyone receiving this should have been less able to reduce pain naturally. The naloxone and placebo groups were further divided — some meditated and some did not.
The brave volunteers agreed to have a thermal probe heat a patch of skin to cause pain. The probe was heated to 49 degrees centigrade — a level most people find very painful. After the probe, the participants then rated how painful they found this.
The group taking naloxone and meditating were able to reduce their reported level of pain by 24 percent. This was an important result because it shows that even when the body’s opioid receptors are blocked, meditation still reduces pain using a different neural pathway.
As Dr Zeidan explained, this is a significant finding.
“Our team has demonstrated across four separate studies that meditation, after a short training period, can reduce experimentally induced pain,” he said. “And now this study shows that meditation doesn’t work through the body’s opioid system.”
“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.”
“At the very least, we 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,” he said.