We’ve heard the stories of Shaolin monks who’ve developed superhuman-type abilities like being able to withstand copious amounts of pain, or the Tibetan monks capable of raising their body temperature. But we needn’t spend a lifetime in remote provinces of China or the Himalayas to develop superhuman powers of our own.
A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience proves yet again, meditation’s powerful ability as a pain reliever—a natural alternative to highly-addictive prescribed opioids. Practicing the art of stillness could be a chronic pain sufferer’s new drug of choice, not to mention a much healthier and more cost-effective option. As Fadel Zeidan, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center told TIME, “This ancient technique that’s been around for thousands of years is reducing pain through novel mechanisms; ways we’ve never seen before.”
A growing body of research has proven that meditation is effective in relieving pain. However, Zeidan and his team wanted to test the hypothesis of what would happen when meditators were given a naloxone solution: a drug that blocks the body’s opiate receptors and is commonly used to treat heroin addicts in rehab. Zeidan believed that since meditation works to activate pain-relieving mechanisms in the body, if the brain’s opiate receptors were to become blocked by naloxone, then the pain-relieving effects of meditation would no longer apply.
So Zeidan and his research team studied 78 healthy, otherwise pain-free subjects, and assigned each of them randomly to a painful intervention: a hot probe placed on the leg. They were divided into four groups: a practiced traditional mindfulness meditation with naloxone, a non-meditation control with naloxone, a meditation training group with saline placebo, and a non-meditation control with saline placebo. The two meditating groups focused on the breath and non-judgmental present moment awareness, while the other two non-meditating groups listened to a book read aloud. Before the experiment began, scientists tested and recorded the pain threshold of all 78 subjects. The meditators practiced 20 minutes a day for four days, and were received traditional mindfulness training, but were later instructed to meditate on their own.
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The researchers exposed everyone’s skin to a hot stimulus–120°F, which is apparently very painful to most people. They rated their pain from the heat at two points: Before they were administered the drug (or placebo) and asked to meditate, and afterwards.
The people who had learned meditation reported significantly less pain than the control groups: Specifically, people in the meditation-naloxone group reported 24% less pain after they meditated compared to before, and those in the meditation-saline group reported 21% less pain after, compared to before. One the other hand, both of the non-meditation control groups reported increases in pain from the first to the second round of heat.
Basically, the group that meditated and should have had their opiate receptors blocked from the drug should have in theory, felt more pain than the meditators who received the placebo. To the scientists’s surprise, this was not the case.
Zeidan’s findings suggest that meditation is able to relieve pain in a such a way that has nothing to do with opiates, as previously thought and studied extensively before. While just how this is possible is not quite yet known, Zeidan’s past research has shown that meditation activates the parts of the brain which transmit information as pain experienced in the body. But what’s most intriguing is that meditation is working in a different neural pathway than the opioid system to reduce how we perceive pain.
While this study was small and more research will be conducted as to find out just how and why this is happening, Zeidan said that his findings are significant and relevant to these times, especially for those who have become addicted to opiate-based drugs and painkillers and are seeking an alternative.
TIME offers more insight:
Meditation may prove especially useful for people who take painkillers, among the most commonly prescribed drugs in America. “If meditation did work through opiates, and someone is addicted to opiates for pain, you would have to meditate like the Dalai Lama for decades to produce enough opiates in your body to match that tolerance,” Zeidan says. “This is a very attractive technique for the millions of chronic pain sufferers who are seeking a non-opiate pain therapy.”
Zeidan is now testing the intervention on people with chronic pain. “This is just yet another study finding that you don’t have to be a monk to reap the benefits of meditation,” he says. “With only 80 minutes of practice, we’re seeing dramatic reductions in pain.”
Upwards of 50-100 million people in the U.S. deal with some form of chronic pain, and the Institute of Medicine estimates that medical treatment costs are roughly $600 billion a year. As more doctors prescribe holistic treatment for chronic pain, Zeidan’s discoveries couldn’t be more timely. This research also shows us that there are still many mysteries surrounding the powerful effects of meditation that have yet to be revealed.
Andrea Rice is the Practice and Community Editor for Wanderlust Media. She is also a freelance writer, editor and yoga teacher. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, SONIMA, mindbodygreen, and other online publications. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center in Brooklyn, and connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.