Meditate Your Way Toward Less Pain

Mindfulness meditation—a practice based on observing what’s passing through your mind without judgement—is known to be an effective pain reliever. Studies have shown mindfulness meditation activates brain regions that have a high concentration of receptors for natural opioid chemicals (such as endorphins). When opioid chemicals interact with these receptors, pain signals from nerves throughout the body diminish. However, it was not previously known whether the pain-relieving effects of mediation were in fact due to an increase in activity in the opioid system or to something else. Now, research published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found meditation may relieve pain in ways unrelated to the opioid system. The study included 78 pain-free people who were randomly assigned to three different groups for a four-day training period: the first group meditated for 20 minutes each day while receiving an intravenous drug that blocks opioid receptors; a second group meditated for 20 minutes each day but received an intravenous saline solution instead of the drug; and the third group (the control group) listened to a book being read aloud for 20 minutes each day while receiving the saline solution. After the four days, the scientists brought all the participants back to the lab where they were subjected to a hot probe on the back of their leg and reported on their experience of pain. Researchers expected the meditating group to report feeling less pain, but were not sure how receiving the opioid-blocking drug would change their pain levels. This is what they found:

  • Compared to the control group, both meditation groups experienced significantly less pain.
  • The meditation group receiving the opioid-blocking drug reported pain levels that were similar to the meditation group receiving the saline solution, suggesting the pain-relieving effects of meditation do not rely on the opioid system.

These results show that even a brief training in mindfulness meditation can effectively reduce pain sensation, and can do so apparently without engaging the opioid system. Since opiate medications such as oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin) are associated with serious and uncomfortable side effects, as well as a high risk of dependence, people with chronic pain need other options for reducing their reliance on these pain relievers. Mindfulness meditation is one of these options, and can be safely incorporated into a holistic pain management program.

Source: The Journal of Neuroscience

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