Researchers at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center published a study that looked into whether meditation uses natural opioids to reduce pain. The study, led by author, Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy found that mindfulness meditation does not employ the endogenous opioid system to reduce pain.
“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 Dr. Zeidan.
The researchers injected study participants with either naloxone, which chemically blocks opioid receptors, or a saline placebo.
In this randomized, double-blinded study, 78 healthy, pain-free volunteers were divided into four groups for the four-day (20 minutes per day) trial. The groups consisted of:
- meditation plus naloxone
- non-meditation control plus naloxone
- meditation plus saline placebo
- non-meditation control plus saline placebo.
A thermal probe was used to induce pain by heating a small area of the skin to 102.2 degrees, which is considered very painful by most people. The participants then rated their pain using a sliding scale.
The authors concluded that pain ratings were reduced 24% from the baseline measurement for the group using meditation and naloxone. They noted that this is important because the opioid receptors were chemically blocked, while significantly reducing pain. Pain was also reduced by 21% in the meditation and saline placebo group.
The non-meditation control groups 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,” Zeidan said. “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.”
Zeidan’s team hopes to determine how mindfulness meditation can affect a wide range 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,” he said.