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Meditation for Pain Relief Doesn’t Use the Body’s Natural Opioids

meditation for pain reliefResearch has fairly well established that meditation for pain relief can be a powerful tool, but HOW it helps remains a mystery. One hypothesis is that meditation employs the body’s naturally occurring opioids to control pain. This is what happens when you stub your toe—it hurts at first then it stops hurting when your body produces opioids to block the pain. This opioid theory is incorrect, according to a study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The drug naloxone, which blocks the pain-reduction opioids can provide, was a key part of the study. Researchers divided 78 healthy, pain-free participants into four groups: naloxone plus meditation, naloxone without meditation, saline placebo plus meditation, and saline placebo without meditation. Pain was induced by using a thermal probe to heat a portion of participants’ skin to 120.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Participants used a sliding scale to rate their pain. Each participant established a baseline pain rating before receiving any treatment. The pain ratings after the treatment were 24% lower than baseline in the group that meditated and received naloxone. The ratings were 21% lower than baseline in the meditation group that received the saline placebo. Pain levels were higher than baseline in the groups that did not meditate, whether or not they receive naloxone.

These pain reduction levels are significant because they show that meditation reduced pain even in people whose opioid receptors were chemically blocked. Thus indicating that non-opioid pathways are responsible for pain relief in meditation. Further research is required to determine which pathways might be at work. It will be interesting to see if those pathways (whatever they are) have already been identified as having a role in pain relief.

Although the study included healthy participants who experienced fleeting pain, the lead researcher says the findings could be particularly helpful for people who want to avoid opioids or have built up a tolerance to them—the latter of which implies people with chronic pain. He did not condemn other treatments, but said that meditation can be used to enhance the benefits of other treatments.

Whenever I share anything about pain, I feel the need to clarify that most headache disorders are not just pain. Migraine, cluster headache, and even new daily persistent headache have symptoms that extend beyond pain. Focusing only on the pain diminishes the non-pain symptoms that can be just as, or even more, disabling than the pain. It can also lead to ineffective or even harmful treatment. I’m not worried about that with meditation, but it’s still good to remember that pain isn’t the only symptom for most headache disorders (though I doubt most of you could forget that!). In addition to it’s potential to reduce physical pain, meditation is a great tool for managing the emotional distress that comes with headache disorders. And, as Alicia pointed out in the discussion on acceptance, “the psychological aspect of having migraines can be just as devastating as the physical aspect.”

 

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Opioids Under-Prescribed Due to Addiction Fears?

Fear of Addiction Means Chronic Pain Goes Untreated, according to an NPR story that aired last weekend. While there’s definitely some truth to the headline, it obscures the nuances of physicians’ reluctance to prescribe opioids (a.k.a narcotics) for chronic pain in general and headache disorders specifically (particularly migraine).

Opioids were originally prescribed for short-term pain, like from surgery or an injury, or for use in end-of-life care. Chronic pain is a serious medical issue that is both under-treated and has limited treatment options, so it’s understandable that opioid painkillers filled that void, especially because opioids are the only source of relief for many people with chronic pain. Unfortunately, they began to be prescribed for long-term use before there were a lot of studies on their long-term effects. Now that research is catching up, this use is being questioned.

Beyond addiction, other potential problems for using opioids for chronic pain include opioid-induced hyperalgesia, tolerance and the systemic effects of long-term use. Opioid-induced hyperalgesia, when opioid use increases a person’s sensitivity to pain, is one concern. Tolerance — which requires taking increasingly higher doses of the medication for it to still be effective — is another. The repercussions of regular (and often increasingly higher) doses of opioids could have on the body’s systems should also be considered.

Headache disorders have additional issues. Rebound headache (medication overuse headache) is the most widely addressed concern. In addition, the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention study found that using opioids more than eight times a month can cause episodic migraine to transform into chronic. (Diana Lee recently reported that there may be a difference between short-acting opioids and long-acting ones and that long-acting opioids may be OK for long-term pain management for people with chronic migraine.) Headache specialists also believe opioids impair the efficacy of preventive medications.

On top of all that, opioids aren’t even particularly effective for any type of head pain. In the video I shared last week, headache specialist Mark Green explained why:

“Part of the reason for that is there are fundamental differences in the chemistry of head pain compared to visceral pain. In the receptors subserving head pain, we really don’t have a lot of opioid receptors, so the upside for the use of opioids is rather low. That’s why we use, for example triptans and ergots. Those serotonin receptors are very well represented on those receptors that subserve headache.”

What do I get from all this?

  • Boiling down concerns about opioid use to a fear of patients becoming addicted is an oversimplification.
  • There are a lot of unknowns about opioid use for chronic pain. As more research is published, the less they seem like a good long-term solution.
  • Head pain is different than bodily pain and migraine may different still.
  • Chronic migraine isn’t a chronic pain disorder, nor are chronic cluster headaches. I don’t know where tension-type headache falls on the continuum, but I’m inclined to believe it’s more on the side of other types of headache disorders.
  • Using opioids can significantly alter treatment for an underlying headache disorder.
  • Mostly, I’m left with a lot of questions (and so are researchers and physicians).

I’m not anti-opioid, but want anyone who takes them for headache disorders to know the facts and to be very, very careful. Ideally, your headache specialist would be the prescriber, but fewer and fewer are willing to prescribe opioids (not out of fear of addiction or the DEA, but because of the ramifications for treating the condition you’re using opioids for in the first place). If your headache specialist won’t prescribe them, still be honest with them about how often you use them and at what dose — without that information, your specialist can’t treat your headache disorder properly.

Note: I’ve used words like “potentially” and “can” a lot in this post because not everyone’s the same. It’s important to be aware of the risks, but also to remember that not everyone will have all the same issues.

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Opioids (Narcotics) for Migraine & Headache Disorders: Two Specialists Weigh In

Opioids are highly controversial in the world of headache medicine. Beyond the obvious issues of dependence and addiction, there are risks specific to headache disorders. In this short video, two headache specialists address some of the issues, including:

  • Taking opioids more than eight times a month puts a person at risk for rebound headache (also called medication overuse headache or MOH).
  • Opioids can reduce the efficacy of other migraine medications, including abortives and preventives.
  • Migraine is an inflammatory condition. Opioids may increase inflammation, counteracting any migraine relief they might provide.
  • Opioids aren’t particularly effective for head pain to begin with. The receptors of the brain associated with head pain have few opioid receptors, so there’s not much for the opioids to work on.

This is a huge, controversial topic, but the more I learn about it, the more convinced I become that opioids should be of limited use in treating headache disorders. Opioids have a place, but that place is small and specific. They shouldn’t be a front line treatment, which they too frequently are.

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Opioids Under-Prescribed Due to Addiction Fears?

Fear of Addiction Means Chronic Pain Goes Untreated, according to an NPR story that aired last weekend. While there’s definitely truth to the headline, it obscures the nuances of physicians’ reluctance to prescribe opioids (a.k.a narcotics) for chronic pain in general and headache disorders specifically (particularly migraine).

Opioids were originally prescribed for short-term pain, like from surgery or an injury, or for use in end-of-life care. Chronic pain is a serious medical issue that is both under-treated and has limited treatment options, so it’s understandable that opioid painkillers filled that void, especially because opioids are the only source of relief for many people with chronic pain. Unfortunately, they began to be prescribed for long-term use before there were a lot of studies on their long-term effects. Now that research is catching up, this use is being questioned.

Beyond addiction, other potential problems for using opioids for chronic pain include opioid-induced hyperalgesia, tolerance and the systemic effects of long-term use. Opioid-induced hyperalgesia, when opioid use increases a person’s sensitivity to pain, is one concern. Tolerance — which requires taking increasingly higher doses of the medication for it to still be effective — is another. The repercussions of regular (and often increasingly higher) doses of opioids could have on the body’s systems should also be considered.

Headache disorders — and particularly migraine — have additional issues. Rebound headache (medication overuse headache) is the most widely addressed concern. In addition, the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention study found that using opioids more than eight times a month can cause episodic migraine to transform into chronic. (Diana Lee recently reported that there may be a difference between short-acting opioids and long-acting ones and that long-acting opioids may be OK for long-term pain management for people with chronic migraine.) Headache specialists also believe opioids impair the efficacy of preventive medications.

On top of that, opioids aren’t even particularly effective for any type of head pain. In the video I shared last week, headache specialist Mark Green explained why:

“Part of the reason for that is there are fundamental differences in the chemistry of head pain compared to visceral pain. In the receptors subserving head pain, we really don’t have a lot of opioid receptors, so the upside for the use of opioids is rather low. That’s why we use, for example triptans and ergots. Those serotonin receptors are very well represented on those receptors that subserve headache.”

What do I get from all this?

  • Boiling down concerns about opioid use to a fear of patients becoming addicted is an oversimplification.
  • There are a lot of unknowns about opioid use for chronic pain. As more research is published, the less they seem like a good long-term solution.
  • Head pain is different than bodily pain and migraine may different still.
  • Chronic migraine isn’t a chronic pain disorder, nor are chronic cluster headaches. I don’t know where tension-type headache falls on the continuum, but I’m inclined to believe it’s more on the side of other types of headache disorders.
  • Using opioids can significantly alter treatment for an underlying headache disorder.
  • Mostly, I’m left with a lot of questions (and so are researchers and physicians).

I’m not anti-opioid, but all these unknowns plus the generally negative outlook of what we do know make me very, very cautious. Ideally, your headache specialist would be the prescriber, but fewer and fewer are willing to prescribe opioids (not out of fear of addiction or the DEA, but because of the ramifications for treating the condition you’re using opioids for in the first place). If your headache specialist won’t prescribe them, still be honest with them about how often you use them and at what dose — without that information, your specialist can’t treat your headache disorder properly.

Note: I’ve used words like “potentially” and “can” a lot in this post because not everyone’s the same. It’s important to be aware of the risks, but also to remember that not everyone will have all the same issues.

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FDA Advisory Panel Recommends Restricting Hydrocodone

The FDA is expected to tighten restrictions on painkillers containing hydrocodone, like Vicodin, following Friday’s vote by an advisory panel. Under these controls, only written (not faxed or called in) prescriptions from a doctor would be filled, no refills would be allowed, and nurse practitioners and physician assistants could not prescribe the drugs*. These same restrictions already apply to drugs containing oxycodone (including Oxycontin and Percocet). Reducing addiction to prescription painkillers is the goal of the recommendation, though experts debate whether this is an effective approach. Patient advocates argue such constraints will be an enormous burden to those who rely on these drugs for chronic pain.

Prescription drug addiction is not a trivial problem. One hundred people die every day in the US from a drug overdose and the CDC attributes most of those deaths to prescription painkillers. In 2010, about 12 million Americans reported using prescription painkillers recreationally in the previous year.

No one should have to live with the unrelenting misery of chronic pain. Because opioids can make the brain more sensitive to pain and make migraine more difficult to treat, I no longer advocate broadly for the use of opioids for headache or migraine management. In fact, the long-term efficacy and potential harmful effects of opioid use for any type of chronic pain are in question. If opioids aren’t the answer, then patients must have access to other effective therapies, drug or otherwise. Unfortunately, alternative solutions aren’t always available. Pain patients may have to pay the cost — financial as well as physical — of dragging themselves to the doctor each month for medication to manage their pain.

Is there a way to prevent drug abuse without increasing the suffering of people who live with horrible pain?

*States differ on how they implement these restrictions. Some allow doctors to write prescriptions to be filled at a future date. Some allow physician assistants and nurse practitioners to write prescriptions with the approval of a licensed physician.