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Scientists Discover Nonopioid Pain Pathway in the Brain

Study shows how mindfulness meditation reduces pain

A new study demonstrates that mindfulness meditation works on a different pain pathway in the brain than opioid pain relievers.

The researchers noted that because opioid and nonopioid mechanisms of pain relief interact synergistically, the results of this study suggest that combining mindfulness-based and pharmacological/nonpharmacological pain-relieving approaches that rely on opioid signaling may be particularly effective in treating pain. 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.

Researchers recorded pain reports in 78 healthy adults during meditation or a nonmeditation 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.

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. It was funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Source: National Institutes of Health; March 17, 2016.

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