Previous research has shown that mindfulness meditation helps relieve pain, but researchers have been unclear about how the practice induces pain relief—specifically, if meditation is associated with the release of naturally occurring opiates. Results from a new study, funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, demonstrate that mindfulness meditation does not rely on the endogenous opioid activity to reduce pain, which is an important consideration for using meditation to treat chronic pain. The study, conducted by researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, was published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Researchers recorded pain reports in 78 healthy adults during meditation or a non-meditation control in response to painful heat stimuli and intravenous administration of the opioid antagonist naloxone (a drug that blocks the transmission of opioid activity) or placebo saline. Participants were randomized to one of four treatment groups: 1) meditation plus naloxone; 2) control plus naloxone; 3) meditation plus saline; or 4) control plus saline. People in the control groups were instructed to “close your eyes and relax until the end of the experiment.”
The researchers found that participants who meditated during saline administration had significantly lower pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings compared to those who did not meditate while receiving saline. Importantly, data from the meditation plus naloxone group showed that naloxone did not block meditation’s pain-relieving effects. No significant differences in reductions of pain intensity or pain unpleasantness were seen between the meditation plus naloxone and the meditation plus saline groups. Participants who meditated during naloxone administration also had significantly greater reductions in pain intensity and unpleasantness than the control groups.
These findings demonstrate that mindfulness meditation reduces pain independently of opioid neurotransmitter mechanisms. The researchers noted that because opioid and non-opioid mechanisms of pain relief interact synergistically, the results of this study suggest that combining mindfulness-based and pharmacologic/nonpharmacologic pain-relieving approaches that rely on opioid signaling may be particularly effective in treating pain.
- Zeidan F, Adler-Neal AL, Wells RE, et al. Mindfulness-meditation-based pain relief is not mediated by endogenous opioids. Journal of Neuroscience. 2016;36(11):3391-3397.