Study May Explain How Meditation Relieves Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Some pain sufferers report success using cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness mediation to reduce their pain. But how those techniques work is a bit of mystery and has led to speculation that they have a placebo effect on pain.

But a new study by researchers at Wake Forest University suggests that meditation really does provide pain relief – but not by utilizing the body’s natural endogenous opioid system.

“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,” said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Zeidan and his colleagues enrolled 75 healthy, pain free volunteers in a study. Some were injected with naloxone, which blocks the pain reducing effects of opioids, while others were injected with a placebo saline solution.

Participants were then divided into four groups: meditation plus naloxone; no meditation plus naloxone; meditation plus placebo; or no meditation plus placebo.

Pain was induced in all four groups with a thermal probe that heated their skin to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Centigrade), a level of heat that most people find very painful.

The group that meditated and was injected with naloxone had a 24 percent reduction in their pain ratings, showing that even when the body’s opioid receptors were chemically blocked, meditation still was able to significantly reduce pain. Pain ratings were also reduced by 21 percent in the meditation group that received the placebo injection.

By comparison, the two control groups that did not meditate  reported increases in pain regardless of whether they got the naloxone or placebo-saline injection.

“Our team has demonstrated across four separate studies that meditation, after a short training period, can reduce experimentally induced pain,” said Zeidan. “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.”

The next step for researchers is to determine how mindfulness meditation can affect a spectrum of chronic pain conditions.

“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 said.

An earlier study by Zeidan found that mindfulness meditation activates parts of the brain (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with pain control, while it deactivated another brain region (the thalamus) that regulates sensory information. By deactivating the thalamus, meditation may cause signals about pain to simply fade away.

In addition to relieving pain, there is increasing evidence that mindfulness meditation is effective in treating a broad range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and stress. One study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that online mindfulness courses were often just as effective as face-to-face meetings with a therapist.

You can sample a relaxing online pain management meditation at (click here to see it). The initial course is free.