Can Meditation (MBSR) Take The Place Of Painkillers?
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a set of recommendations to physicians for the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain. One of these recommendations encouraged doctors to try alternative treatments for pain before turning to pharmacology.
This announcement, as well as the increasing media focus on opioid painkillers, addiction, and overdose deaths has prompted some to consider what else can be done. Last month, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an editorial appeared which described the role that mindfulness meditation can play in the treatment of pain. While it is not effective in every case by any means, at least one study revealed that it can help people dealing with mild-moderate pain.
In the study, which occurred earlier this year, people suffering from chronic lower back pain participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course (MBSR), or the equal amount of time in cognitive-behavioral therapy (also helpful in managing pain). At the end of the study, people receiving either treatment reported about the same amount of improvement – around 45% – versus 27% of the control group.
Thus, both CBT and MBSR reduced pain better than the “usual care” that the control group received.
What is MBSR?
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was designed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centers in the 1970’s. It’s purpose is to treat people with pain and other conditions which may be difficult to treat otherwise. MBSR using meditation, body awareness, and yoga. In addition to pain relief, studies have shown it may also reduce stress and increase relaxation.
How Does It Work?
Pain relief spurred by mindfulness does not originate in the opioid pathway. For example, in another study, people whose opioid receptors were blocked still reported significantly less pain after practicing meditation.
While the exact reason why meditation works so well is not fully known, there is some evidence that meditation affects pain response because it affects brain areas which control how we perceive what’s going on in our environment, as well as cognitive control and the regulation of emotion. These areas of the brain, namely the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, both have a high number of opioid receptors.
In addition, meditation has also been linked to a reduction of activity in the thalamus, which transfers information from the spine to the brain. Moreover, it alters the way in which we relate to our own conceptualization of pain.
Clearly, however, more research is needed. For some, it does not work, and some may need complimenting forms of therapy to effectively manage pain via a more comprehensive approach. The thing about meditation, however, is that it’s free, can be controlled, and is non-addictive. So it’s certainly worth a try, if nothing else.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology
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