Treating pain: Meditation could be a better option than opioid drugs

CDC has warned about risks of opioid drugs while a study shows benefits of meditation.

Treating pain comes with its own risks which often outweigh the benefits. Opioid overdose is killing thousands, warns CDC while advising doctors to opt for low doses or alternate methods. Coincidentally, a study has shown that meditation helps alleviate pain and does not use the natural opioid system of the body.

New guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge doctors to avoid prescribing opioids to treat pain unless left with no other option. The CDC advises other methods like ice, talk therapy or medications like Tylenol or ibuprofen. If an opioid drug like oxycontin is unavoidable, patients must be started on lowest possible dose, says the guidelines published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Approximately 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain at a cost of more than $600 billion annually for treatment. The increase in the number of people addicted to opiate drugs, which are related to morphine and heroin, has led to the Centers for Disease Control calling it an epidemic.

The body's main pain-blocking process also works by the natural production of opioids. Cognitive-based approaches found to reduce pain, such as hypnosis, acupuncture, distraction and the placebo response works this way, but not meditation, shows research at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

A team led by Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the centre reports 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," Zeidan said.

Researchers injected study participants with either a drug called naloxone, which blocks the pain-reducing effects of opioids, or a saline placebo.

In the randomized, double-blinded study, 78 pain-free 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.

Pain was induced by using a thermal probe to heat a small area of the participants' skin to 49 degrees Centigrade. Study participants rated their pain using a sliding scale.

Pain ratings were reduced by 24 percent from the baseline measurement in the meditation group that received the naloxone and by 21 percent in the meditation group that received the placebo-saline injection. The other two groups registered increases in pain.

"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."

Deaths from opioid overdoses have hit an all-time record in the U.S at around 47,000 deaths in 2014. CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said that one out of every 32 patients given the highest doses of opiate drugs died within two and a half years. He blamed doctors for the overdose epidemic.