Relief in the Garden of Your Mind

Meditation provides opiate-free pain relief in Wake Forest Baptist Center study


Chronic pain can be devastating, especially for those who are unable or unwilling to take prescription painkillers. New research suggests that for those seeking non-opiate-based therapy to alleviate pain, the answer may be closer than they think.

Most cognitive-based approaches that have been shown to reduce pain, such as hypnosis, acupuncture, distraction and even the placebo response, work by releasing natural opioids. Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Center wanted to see if the same was true of meditation.

According to a press release issued by Wake Forest Baptist Center, a new study found that mindfulness meditation does not work through the body’s opioid system. This means that the practice of mindfulness medication not only poses no risk of drug addiction, but that it’s also effective for those with a high tolerance to opiate-based drugs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that as many as 78 Americans die everyday from opioid-based overdoses. This epidemic has prompted the CDC to release voluntary guidelines, instructing primary care physicians to prescribe the lowest possible dose of opioids and to monitor patients closely.

“Opioids pose a risk to all patients,” the CDC stated on their website.

To conduct the study, lead author Dr. Fadel Zeidan, PhD, and his team injected 78 healthy, pain-free volunteers with either naloxone, a drug which blocks the pain-reducing effects of opioids, or a saline placebo.

Dr. Zeidan is an assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

The volunteers were divided into four groups: meditation plus naloxone, non-meditation control plus naloxone, meditation plus saline placebo, or non-meditation control plus saline placebo.

The team used a thermal probe to heat a small area of the participants’ skin to 120.2 degrees Fahrenheit, a level of heat most people find very painful. The participants then rated their pain using a sliding scale.

Dr. Zeidan and his team found that the participants in the meditation plus naloxone group reported pain ratings 24 percent below the baseline measurement. This shows that even when the body’s opioid receptors were chemically blocked, meditation was able to reduce pain by using a different pathway.

"Our team has demonstrated across four separate studies that meditation, after a short training period, can reduce experimentally induced pain," Dr. Zeidan said in the press release. "And now this study shows that meditation doesn't work through the body's opioid system.”

Pain ratings were also reduced by 21 percent in the meditation plus saline placebo group. The non-meditation control groups, however, reported increases in pain, regardless of whether they received the naloxone or the saline placebo.

"This study adds to the growing body of evidence that something unique is happening with how meditation reduces pain,” Dr. Zeidan said in the press release. “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."

This study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

It was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the Mind and Life Institute and the Wake Forest Translational Science Institute. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.