Could the practice of mindfulness meditation work as a drug-free pain reliever? A new study puts it to the test, and finds the alternative therapy really can help ease pain. Not only that, it appears to do so using a different pathway in the body than addictive opioid painkillers.
Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center report in the Journal of Neuroscience that mindfulness meditation does not employ the body's endogenous opioid system -- the process used by opioid drugs -- to ease pain.
"These findings are of critical importance to the millions of chronic pain patients seeking a non-opiate pain therapy that is fast-acting and effective," said study author Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
Mindfulness meditation, a Buddhist-inspired practice, involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and bringing your attention to the present moment.
"The construct of mindfulness simply means non-judgmental awareness of the present moment," Zeidan told CBS News.
For the study, the researchers recruited 78 volunteers who did not suffer with pain issues. Some received a drug called naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioid drugs and is commonly given to people who are overdosing on heroin. The other half received a placebo made of saline.
The participants were split up into four groups: meditation plus naloxone; non-meditation control plus naloxone; meditation plus saline placebo; or non-meditation control plus saline placebo.
The researchers induced pain in the volunteers by prodding them on a small area on the back of the leg with a thermal heat probe that registered a temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius), a level of heat they said most people find very painful.
Then the volunteers rated their pain using a sliding scale.
In the meditation group that received the naloxone, the participants' pain ratings were reduced by 24 percent compared to their baseline measurements.
Pain ratings were also reduced by 21 percent in the meditation group that received the placebo-saline injection.
In contrast, the non-meditation control groups reported increases in pain regardless of whether or not they received the naloxone or placebo-saline injection.
"They felt more pain across time because we kept stimulating them, but the exact opposite happened with the meditation groups," said Zeidan, who is also associate director of neuroscience at Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine.
He said the finding is important because it shows that even when the body's own opioid receptors are chemically blocked by the naloxone, meditation is still able to diminish pain using a different pathway.
The findings come at a time when the U.S. is in the grip of an epidemic of prescription opioid abuse and overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 4.3 million Americans took prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons the last month. More than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids, the CDC says. And since 1999, there have been over 165,000 deaths from overdose related to prescription opioid painkillers.
Earlier today, the CDC issued new guidelines for doctors intended to reduce the over-reliance on opioid painkillers. In a statement, the agency said, "Many Americans suffer from chronic pain. These patients deserve safe and effective pain management."
About 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Alexander Rances, a licensed acupuncturist, pain management specialist and attending physician at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center, in New York, said findings on meditation don't come as a surprise to him.
"Mindfulness or meditation allows people to live in the moment and not really think of the future or the past. By doing that through meditation, it allows for a higher threshold of pain," said Rances.
Other studies show mediation offers other benefits, as well, including decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and an increased quality of life, and it could have positive effects on heart health.
"Anxiety and depression and other issues related to chronic pain states can be alleviated through mindfulness," said Rances.
It's affordable and easy to learn. Rances said meditation apps, YouTube videos, and reading material about the practice are widely available.
"You don't have to be a monk to meditate," said Zeidan, who recommended UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center as an helpful, free resource.
The authors plan to continue investigating how mindfulness meditation affects a variety of chronic pain conditions.
"We are hopeful that for some with chronic pain, it will work" to reduce pain or as a supplementary therapy, said Zeidan.