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Mindfulness Therapy Can Reduce Opioid Use with Chronic Pain Patients

Over 30 percent of Americans are living with some form of chronic pain. Long-term pain is often treated with prescription opioids, which are synthetic drugs that produce pain numbing effects akin to morphine. They are called opioids because of their chemical similarity to morphine and other opiates. Using these powerful drugs long-term can lead to addiction, and can lead to heroin use. A researcher may have found a way to manage chronic pain while, at the same time, reducing the risk of opioid abuse. A study by Dr. Eric Garland from the University of Utah involved 115 chronic pain sufferers. Close to 75 percent of the participants had abused their opioid pain medications by taking more than they had been prescribed, or by using them to self-medicate for anxiety or stress. The subjects were randomly placed into either a traditional support group or into a group where Garland’s Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) was taught. Both groups received eight weeks of therapy and were given assessments before beginning treatment, following treatment and then again three months after treatment had concluded. The MORE treatment is based upon three components: training, reappraisal and savoring:

  • During training participants learn to slow down their mind and become more aware. Participants learn to pay attention to and take control of habitual responses.
  • Reappraisal helps participants take events once viewed as negative or stressful and redefine them so they become filled with personal meaning. (e.g. “This has made me a stronger person.)
  • Savoring is all about learning to redirect and focus on the positive experiences of life, such as relationships, nature and learning.

Each participant in the MORE group was instructed to practice mindfulness for 15 minutes each day. They were also instructed to spend three minutes on focusing on breathing exercises each day, just before taking their pain medication. Slowing down the action of taking medication helped patients to differentiate between taking meds to treat pain and pill popping, which is associated with addiction cravings. Patients that had undergone MORE therapy reported a 63 percent reduction in drug misuse compared to those in group therapy that experienced a 32 percent reduction in pill abuse. Those in the MORE group also reported a 22 percent reduction in pain, which extended all the way into the three month follow up. Mindfulness therapy is also being tested in smoking cessation programs, is slated to be tested among soldiers with chronic pain, as well as general population groups with certain mental health conditions. A treatment which reduces reliance on potent opioids while increasing pain control could soon become part of standard pain management.

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