Health

Is mindfulness the new paracetamol? Brain scans show practice can act like a painkiller 

Trendy mindfulness meditation could be used as a painkiller, a study suggests.

The practice involves ‘being present’ with your thoughts and feelings, normally using breathing techniques.

It is said to help people feel less distressed when they face stressful emotional situations, but now scientists say they have proven for the first time it can also treat physical pain. 

They put around 30 healthy Americans through an eight-week mindfulness course and then compared them to a control group.

Participants were given a brain scan before and after the course while their limbs were exposed to heat to establish a pain response.

Those who practiced mindfulness showed less activity in regions of the brain responsible for soreness compared to the control group. 

A separate experiment on long-term mindfulness followers indicated they had physical changes to their brains that influenced their perception of pain. 

Researchers claim the results suggest mindfulness could be used instead of opioids or other painkillers for people with chronic aches.

Practicing mindfulness is on the rise, particularly in the US, with some studies estimating 5.7million Americans have tried it at least once. 

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin have found mindfulness could be used as a form of pain management (stock image)

A number of celebrities have endorsed mindfulness, including Harry Potter star Emma Watson (pictured here in October last year)

A number of celebrities have endorsed mindfulness, including Harry Potter star Emma Watson (pictured here in October last year)

Hollywood star and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees envoy Angelina Jolie is also an advocate of the technique (pictured here in Ukraine in April)

Hollywood star and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees envoy Angelina Jolie is also an advocate of the technique (pictured here in Ukraine in April)

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey has also spoken about she believes mindfulness helps people 'be present' for those they love

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey has also spoken about she believes mindfulness helps people ‘be present’ for those they love

Professional tennis player Novak Djokovic has said he used mindfulness as part of mental training regime as an athlete

Professional tennis player Novak Djokovic has said he used mindfulness as part of mental training regime as an athlete 

Using drugs in pain management has come under scrutiny due to a rise in opioid addiction in the US.

There are also fears of a similar burgeoning crisis in the UK, with opioid hospitalisations soaring over the last decade as more Britons turn to painkillers while on NHS waiting lists for operations like hip or knee replacements. 

What is mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is a popular form of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment.

The practice involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.

It is often touted as a universal tool for boosting mental wellbeing by reducing stress, anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness has become popular in recent years as a way to improve mental and physical well-being. 

Celebrities endorsing it include Emma Watson, Davina McCall, Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey.

Mindfulness is a form of guided meditation where people pay attention to the present moment and their immediate thoughts and feelings.

It generally involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.

Over time, the technique is said it improve mental wellbeing by helping people become aware of the present moment, helping them enjoy the world around them and understand themselves better. 

In the latest study, by the University of Wisconsin, 28 healthy adults were put on a two-month mindfulness course that consisted of a weekly two-and-a-half-hour group class, a one-day retreat, and 45minutes of mindfulness at home per day.

It incorporated simple yoga, mindfulness meditation and body scanning, technique where a person pays attention to their body and sensations in a gradual sequence from head to toe. 

Eighty-seven people were used as a control group and simply went about their normal lives. 

Scientists took images scans of the participants’ brains before and after the eight-week study, looking for two parts of the organ that normally activate in response to pain.

The researchers carefully applied heat to the participants’ forearm, slowly increasing the temperature to mimic a pain response.

Publishing their findings in The American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found people who took the mindfulness course had less activity in one of the pain regions.

Lead author Dr Joseph Wielgosz, a psychologist at Wisconsin, said: ‘Our finding supports the idea that for new practitioners, mindfulness training directly affects how sensory signals from the body are converted into a brain response,’ he said. 

The researchers also examined the brains of ‘experienced’ mindfulness practitioners, those who go on intensive mediation retreats.

Dr Wielgosz said these scans showed mindfulness training had actually altered the areas of brain that shape how we experience pain.

‘Just like an experienced athlete plays a sport differently than a first-timer, experienced mindfulness practitioners seem to use their mental “muscles” differently in response to pain than first-time meditators,’ he said. 

Opioid hospitlisations in England (the black line) have grown to just over 16,000 cases in 2018 up from about 10,000 in 2008, a rise of about 50 per cent in a decade, this was driven primarily by a growth in the number of opioid poisonings which are considered more serious (the dotted blue line) than opioid abuse (the green dotted line)

Opioid hospitlisations in England (the black line) have grown to just over 16,000 cases in 2018 up from about 10,000 in 2008, a rise of about 50 per cent in a decade, this was driven primarily by a growth in the number of opioid poisonings which are considered more serious (the dotted blue line) than opioid abuse (the green dotted line)

How to be mindful 

Experts lay out five tips for a person to enter a state of mindfulness

First, a focus on breathing. A person should recognize when they are breathing-in and breathing-out and ‘home’ themselves on their breath

Then a person should hone in and make sure to concentrate on the pulse of their breath

The next step is to enhance your awareness from just your breath to your body as a whole and be aware of where tension lies within the self

Fourth, a person should release the tension and enter a greater state of relaxation

Once a person enters a state of mindfulness, they are recommended to practice ‘walking meditation’, where they continue being mindful while moving and take enjoyment in every motion their body makes

Source: Mindful.org 

In the US, one fifth of Americans are estimated to live with some form of chronic pain. 

America is still living with the fallout of the opioid epidemic that started in the early 2000s.

Overdose deaths are now the leading cause of death among young Americans – killing more in a year than were ever killed annually by HIV, gun violence or car crashes.

In 2019, the Center for Disease control revealed that nearly 71,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. 

This is up from about 59,000 just three years prior, in 2016, and more than double the death rate from a decade ago.

It means that drug overdoses are currently the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old.

In Britain, the National Institute for Care Excellence estimates that 28million, about four out of 10 Britons , lives with some form of chronic pain. 

One of the most common causes of chronic pain in the UK is arthritis, a condition causing pain and swelling in people’s joints, more common among older people. 

Medics are on the hunt for alternative ways to manage pain due to increasing concerns over the use of opioids both in the UK and the US. 

A study, published in February, found hospitalisations for opioid overdoses in Britain have soared by 50 percent in a decade.

The researchers, from the London School of Economics, highlighted there had been a six-fold increase in patients with multiple underlying health conditions needing emergency care for opioid use, suggesting they may have misused them as part of pain management.

HOW AMERICA GOT HOOKED ON OPIOIDS AND IS THE SAME HAPPENING in BRITAIN?

New research has shown hospital admissions for opioids has soared 50 per cent in the last decade in England adding to fears the UK could be facing a similar opioid crisis to the one in the US which has devastated thousands of families.  

In the early 2000s, the FDA and CDC started to notice a steady increase in cases of opioid addiction and overdose. In 2013, they issued guidelines to curb addiction. 

However, that same year – now regarded as the year the painkiller epidemic took hold – a CDC report revealed an unprecedented surge in rates of opioid addiction.

Overdose deaths are now the leading cause of death among young Americans – killing more in a year than were ever killed annually by HIV, gun violence or car crashes.

In 2019, the CDC revealed that nearly 71,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. 

This is up from about 59,000 just three years prior, in 2016, and more than double the death rate from a decade ago.

It means that drug overdoses are currently the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old.

The data lays bare the bleak state of America’s opioid addiction crisis fueled by deadly manufactured drugs like fentanyl.

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