A 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 Treatmentmeditation 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.
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- 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
- 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
- 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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