Mindfulness Meditation Could Help Manage Post-Surgery Pain

Woman meditating at sunset on boardwalkA new study is in the works to evaluate mindfulness meditation as a treatment for pain after undergoing back surgery. The experiment is still in the participant recruitment stage at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, so results will not be available for a couple of years. However, once completed, the study may lead to the development of new, safer approaches to treating back pain than traditional opioid medications.

Back surgery can cause severe pain that lasts for weeks or longer. Opioids have traditionally been prescribed to treat this issue, but they are widely acknowledged to have dangerous side effects and have fueled an addiction and overdose epidemic. Drug overdose has now surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.

Much of the issue has been attributed to a lack of effective alternative treatments. Mindfulness meditation—deliberately focusing attention on the present moment—has been verified as an effective method for addressing many types of pain, so it is possible the effect could be applicable to post-surgical back pain.

Mindfulness Meditation as Pain Treatment

The researchers were motivated to conduct this study after reading a 2011 Journal of Neuroscience article. In the experiment described in the article, 15 people were subjected to varying levels of pain via heated probes at two different points in time. In between these tests, they participated in four 20-minute sessions of meditation training (one session per day for four days). All sessions were conducted by a trained instructor with more than 10 years of related experience.

A comparison of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) results from before and after mindfulness meditation training identified significant changes in several key brain areas along with reductions in the intensity of pain (40% less) and the unpleasantness of pain (57% less). The associated regions of the brain include those linked to high-level executive functioning, sensory processing, and contextual evaluations, suggesting the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation as a pain treatment is reliant upon multiple neural mechanisms.

Alternative Treatments for Pain

Even if the experiment is successful as far as identifying meditation as being helpful for patients with pain after back surgery, researchers do not expect the approach to be a replacement for modern narcotics. Instead, the goal would be to implement complementary strategies to help manage anxiety and stress after surgery and reduce the need for higher dosages and/or prescriptions for less severe situations.

There are no guarantees that a significant effect will be found at all. Some critics suggest patients may be unable to achieve the necessary focus for mindfulness mediation to be effective near the time of surgery. But with the mounting pressure on doctors to write less prescriptions for opioid painkillers, researchers are continuing to look into alternative treatments for pain.


  1. Ballantyne, J. C. (2015). Assessing the prevalence of opioid misuse, abuse, and addiction in chronic pain. Pain, 156(4), 567-568. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000105
  2. Lagnado, L. (2016, September 19). Can meditation help pain after surgery? Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/can-meditation-help-pain-after-surgery-1474299114
  3. Zeidan, F., Emerson, N. M., Farris, S. R., Ray, J. N., Jung, Y., Mchaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2015). Mindfulness meditation-based pain relief employs different neural mechanisms than placebo and sham mindfulness meditation-induced analgesia. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(46), 15307-15325. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.2542-15.2015
  4. Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., Mchaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(14), 5540-5548. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.5791-10.2011

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  • Lucy

    September 27th, 2016 at 3:41 PM

    Great idea, especially since the number of people who have become dependent on pain medication has spiked so rapidly over the last few years.

  • Amanda

    September 28th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    I am very hopeful that this will become more the norm instead of being thought of as only an alternative method of healing.

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