Mind-body therapies shown to alleviate pain for people prescribed opioids

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Certain mind-body therapies can reduce pain, as well as reduce opioid use, among patients treated with prescription opioids, according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

These findings are critical for medical and behavioral health professionals as they work with patients to determine the best and most effective treatments for pain, according to Eric Garland, PhD, lead author of the study, associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work, and the director of the University of Utah's Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development, in a statement.

Mind-body therapies focus on changing behavior and the function of the brain with the goal of improving quality of life and health, Garland said. Mind-body therapies include clinical use of meditation and mindfulness, hypnosis, relaxation, guided imagery, therapeutic suggestion, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

The researchers examined over 4,200 articles to identify 60 previously published randomized controlled trials on psychologically oriented mind-body therapies for opioid-treated pain. The randomized controlled trials included in the study involved more than 6,400 study participants. The research team looked at the type of pain experienced by the study participants, the type of mind-body therapy used, its effect on the severity of pain and the use or misuse of opioids.

They found that meditation and mindfulness, hypnosis, therapeutic suggestion, and cognitive-behavioral therapy all demonstrated significant improvements in pain severity. They also found that most of the meditation and mindfulness, therapeutic suggestion, and cognitive-behavioral therapy studies showed improvements in opioid use or misuse. In contrast, two studies using relaxation found significantly worsened results in opioid dosing.

Notably, mind-body therapies seem to be effective at reducing acute pain from medical procedures, as well as chronic pain, Garland said. The researchers highlighted this as an important finding, as mind-body therapies could be easily integrated into standard medical practice and could potentially prevent chronic use of opioids and opioid use disorder.

Since mind-body therapies primarily use mental techniques and can continue to be utilized by patients after formal treatment, they may be more easily accessible than other treatments. The researchers also said that two of the mind-body therapies examined, meditation and mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy, might have the highest clinical impact, since they are so widely accessible and affordable.

"Our research suggests that mind-body therapies might help alleviate this crisis by reducing the number of opioids patients need to take to cope with pain," said Garland. "If all of us, doctors, nurses, social workers, policymakers, insurance companies, and patients, use this evidence as we make decisions, we can help stem the tide of the opioid epidemic."