Study Suggests Mindfulness Meditation Could Help Fight Chronic Pain

Study Suggests Mindfulness Meditation Could Help Fight Chronic Pain

1:00pm Oct 14, 2016
This scan illustrates activity in the primary somatosensory cortex. This area is highly active during pain and rest. But its activity level is far lower during meditation and pain.
This scan illustrates activity in the primary somatosensory cortex. This area is highly active during pain and rest. But its activity level is far lower during meditation and pain. (Source: Dr. Robert Coghill)

SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.

Editor’s Note: There are a lot of links on the internet for Mindfulness Meditation, but not all are of reputable quality or scientifically based. For the best information on mindfulness meditation, please go to http://marc.ucla.edu/.

Pain is our security system; it’s important for survival. Without it your ancestors wouldn’t have known not to grab the stick by the end that’s on fire, or that jumping off the cliff to catch lunch was a bad idea.

Today, we can usually reduce or eliminate pain. But not always. Chronic pain can go for days or even years, often with no known cause and very little that can be done to stop it.

Prescription opioid drugs have been pretty effective, but there’s a problem.

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Dr. Fadel Zeidan, Associate Director of Neuroscience at the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine

We’re experiencing an opioid epidemic in our country and around the world.

And all this stems from chronic pain, which is also an epidemic in our country, where we have a hundred million Americans, and 1.5 billion people [worldwide] who suffer from chronic pain, and it costs our country $635 billion a year.

Our society has produced this phenomenon. We were handing out Vicodin like candy, and then all of a sudden we came up with regulations where we shouldn’t give out opioids like candy, so people went to more street-form opioids in the form of heroine.

That’s Dr. Fadel Zeidan, Associate Director of Neuroscience at the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine. He studies how the human brain regulates pain.

Pain is made up of an interaction between sensations, cognitive evaluation, and emotional reactions. Using neuroimaging, and psychophysics and psychology, we can kind of disentangle the different dimensions.

Dr. Zeidan is exploring the use of a very specific type of meditation called “mindfulness meditation.”

If your skeptic-alarm just went off, stay with me. Dr. Zeidan’s robust scientific investigation into this ancient form of meditation was published in a 2015 issue of the journal Neuroscience.

Whether you’re looking at distraction, placebo, relaxation, hypnosis, acupuncture, all those techniques employ the body’s opioid system to reduce pain.

So, we just ask a pretty simple question. Does [mindfulness] meditation also use the body’s opioid system to reduce pain?

The lab ran a human experiment using mindfulness. The placebo was a fake meditation the subjects were told was mindfulness.

We induced pain with heat to the back of the leg, and we scanned people's brains with MRI. We found that mindfulness meditation was in fact more effective than the placebo conditions, and it also engaged distinct brain regions than the other conditions to reduce pain.

Then they used a drug to eliminate the subjects’ natural opioid system while meditating.

We found that even when people were meditating during a high level of Naloxone, they were still able to report significant reductions of pain, which showed us that even when you block opioids, meditation still works, which suggests there’s something else going on.

MRI images show that a very primitive part of the brain called the thalamus, which is very active in response to pain, slows down during Mindfulness. They’re not sure how, but the less pain a person experiences, the slower the thalamus fires. This isn’t seen with other pain reduction methods.

So...can mindfulness be put into a pill? Well, maybe. Sort of.

There are a whole spectrum of neurochemical targets that we can aim for, and we’re working on that. But, I think it’s important to note that mindfulness doesn’t necessarily teach you to remove the pain, but just to look at it from a different perspective, so that it doesn’t impact your life negatively in such a dramatic fashion. What we see in people that practice for months to years is that they’re able to disentangle pain, where maybe as a function of meditation you say, “This is pain. It’s not me. I can accept this pain, but I can let it go.”

What mindfulness may also be impacting are the more peripheral aspects of chronic pain, such as depression and anxiety. So that the pain is still there, but the way it impacts their quality of life is significantly improved.

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of UFOmusic.com.

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