Meditation may serve as pain-relief alternative to opioids

More and more people are suffering from conditions that cause daily, chronic pain. In an effort to offer alternatives to opioids, some doctors are now looking at techniques beyond some of the more traditional approaches, like physical therapy.

Now, some are looking at meditation to offer relief for their patients.

Like Helen Brindell. She loves gardening, but chronic low back pain prevented her from doing one of her favorite activities.

Determined not to take opioids, Brindell was faced with a tough choice. She could get a spinal fusion to help the pain but that could mean kissing gardening goodbye.

"I was at the point where I wasn't sure what I was going to do because what I was doing wasn't working," Brindell said.

That's when her orthopedic surgeon and musculoskeletal oncologist Dr. Rex Marco from Houston Methodist mentioned a third option. It was a meditation app.

Brindell said, "I don't believe it. I didn't believe it."

But Dr. Marco says there's science to meditation.

Pain creates a stress response in the body that can cause anxiety. And that can cause an even bigger stress response and more anxiety.

"It's this vicious circle which can be slowed down by narcotics or by other mindfulness techniques," Marco said.

And while opioids flood the brain with dopamine, studies show that meditation can increase dopamine naturally. In clinical trials, meditation has reduced chronic pain by 57 percent, and it can be reduced up to 90 percent.

In fact, meditation has been prescribed to help patients deal with arthritis, heart disease and cancer.

"There is a scientific reason why this might help you," Marco said.

Another thing Marco recommends is to be mindful of "HALT," which stands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Those are conditions created by low dopamine levels.

Brindell says meditation has helped her manage pain.

"You just feel like ... ahh," she described.

And, she can continue doing the hobby she loves, spending lots of time in the garden.

Marco recommends a couple of apps to his patients, including: "The Back Doctor" and "Stop, Breathe, And Think." Both are free and include exercises that may also trigger the body to make endorphins.
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