Study Finds Mindfulness Reduces Pain and Despair

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

“Mindfulness” may as well be a four-letter word to chronic pain patients. Many have tried mindfulness meditation – a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – and found it does not relieve their pain.

“The quackery continues,” one reader told us. “This is a modern-day lobotomy experiment.”

“I have tried CBT and mindfulness. They made me feel much worse emotionally, paradoxically enough, and made me more acutely aware of the pain,” another patient said.

“We have ALL been through almost every other treatment you can think of including psychological therapy, mindfulness, yoga, etc. before given opiates. We still use these to help cope, but they do not really help much when all you want is to die to stop the pain you are in,” another patient wrote.

A new study at the University of Utah provides some intriguing evidence that mindfulness can enhance the quality of life, while also reducing pain and the need for opioids.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, looked at data from four experiments involving 135 adults who took opioids daily for chronic pain.

Participants were randomly assigned to two groups that participated in eight weeks of support group therapy or eight weeks of a meditation program called Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), which was primarily designed to treat addiction. Patients in the MORE group were asked to focus on rewarding experiences, such as watching a beautiful nature scene.

At the beginning and end of the study, researchers collected electroencephalogram (EEG) data from the participants, using electrodes on the face and scalp to track their eye movements, smiles, frowns, changes in heart rate, and brain function.

Researchers say patients in the MORE group had fewer cravings for opioids and became more responsive to pleasant images by using mindfulness. They also reported significantly less pain, more positive emotions, enhanced joy and more meaning in life compared to patients in the therapy group.

IMAGE COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF UTAH

IMAGE COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF UTAH

"Previous research shows that prolonged use of opioids makes our brains more sensitive to pain and less receptive to the joy one might normally experience from natural rewards, like spending time with loved ones or appreciating a beautiful sunset," said lead author Eric Garland, PhD, an associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work.

“This blunted ability to experience natural positive feelings leads people to take higher and higher doses of opioids just to feel okay, and ultimately propels a downward spiral of opioid dependence and misuse. Because of this downward spiral, scholars are increasingly referring to chronic pain and opioid misuse as 'diseases of despair.'"

Garland developed MORE as a mindfulness therapy to promote positive psychological health while simultaneously addressing addiction, pain and stress. MORE teaches mental training techniques to help people find meaning in the face of adversity, while simultaneously alleviating physical and emotional pain by cultivating positive feelings and experiences.

"MORE teaches people to better notice, appreciate and amplify the good things in life, while also deriving meaning and value from difficult situations," said Garland.

Previous studies on mindfulness using MRI imaging found that changes in the brain do occur during meditation, making people less sensitive to pain. Meditation activated brain regions associated with the self-control of pain, while deactivating regions that process sensory information.

You can take a free 20-minute guided meditation at Meditainment.com. The online mindfulness program takes you into a “secret garden” of your own imagination, designed to help your pain seem less important.