Multiple studies have shown that meditation can provide effective pain relief, but the question remains as to why it helps. Researchers have speculated that meditation recruits the naturally occurring opioids in a person’s body to control pain. Not so, according to a study published last week in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Researchers injected some participants with naloxone (a drug that blocks the pain-reducing effects of opioids) and some with a saline placebo then assessed participants’ reaction to pain. The 78 healthy, pain-free participants were broken into four groups:
- Meditation plus naloxone
- Naloxone without meditation
- Meditation plus saline placebo
- Saline placebo without meditation
To induce pain, a probe was used to heat participants’ skin to 120.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Participants then rated their pain using a sliding scale. A baseline pain rating for each participant was established before any treatment began. After the treatment began, pain ratings were:
- 24% lower than baseline in the meditation plus naloxone group
- 21% lower than baseline in the meditation without naloxone group
- Higher than baseline the non-meditation groups, with or without naloxone
That 24% reduction is significant. It shows that even when the body’s opioid receptors were chemically blocked, meditation still reduced participants’ pain using a different pathway.
This study is the fifth that this team of researchers has conducted on meditation to reduce pain. Lead researcher Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., a neurobiology and anatomy professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, summarized the previous work and explained the significance of this most recent study:
"Our team has demonstrated across four separate studies that meditation, after a short training period, can reduce experimentally induced pain," Zeidan 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."
Zeidan, F.; Adler-Neal, A. N.; Wells, R. E.; Stagnaro, E.; May, L. M.; Eisenach, J. C.; McHaffie, J. G.; & Coghill, R. C. (2016). Mindfulness-Meditation-Based Pain Relief Is Not Mediated by Endogenous Opioids. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(11): 3391-3397.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center (2016). Mindfulness Meditation Provides Opioid-Free Pain Relief, Study Finds [Press release]. Retrieved March 16, 2016 from http://www.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2016/Mind...
Photo credit: Kokil Sharma
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