Science Has Figured out How to Treat Pain Without Addictive Pain Meds—Here’s How

Updated: Jul. 18, 2022

These two mind-body therapies may be just as good at reducing serious pain as prescription pain meds.

hospitalESB Professional/ShutterstockAny kind of pain is bad—here are the kinds of pain you should never ignore. Then there’s intolerable pain—the type that can only be tamed by serious—and addictive—opioid drugs. There may be another way, according to a new study out of the University of Utah, which was published recently in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. The new research suggests that a single 15-minute session of either mindfulness training or hypnotic suggestion could be as effective as opioids in providing immediate pain relief.

In previous research, Eric L. Garland, PhD, the associate dean for research in the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and director of the Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development has found that an eight-week mindfulness training course could help reduce chronic pain and a need for pain meds. For the most recent study, Dr. Garland and his colleagues wanted to test the theory that one 15-minute mindfulness-oriented training session delivered by trained hospital social workers would significantly reduce pain intensity in patients hospitalized with acute pain. The researchers found 244 hospital patients who reported either “intolerable pain” or “inadequate pain control” as the result of illness, disease, or surgical procedures. The patients were enrolled in one of three 15-minute pain-interventions. One was the mindfulness training, another involved hypnotic suggestion that relied on pain-relieving imagery, and the third—the control—was a lecture on coping with pain.

While all of the patients reported feeling less anxious and more relaxed, those who participated in the hypnotic suggestion intervention and the mindfulness intervention experienced a 29 percent reduction in pain and a 23 percent reduction in pain, respectively. This was compared to a 9 percent reduction in pain for those who were given the pain-coping lecture. That nearly 30 percent reduction in pain relief is roughly equivalent to that from five milligrams of oxycodone, Dr. Garland shared on his website. And, in fact, patients in the mindfulness or hypnosis interventions reported a significant decrease in their need for prescription pain medications.

“This new study added a new dimension to my work by revealing the promise of brief mind-body therapies for acute pain patients,” Dr. Garland says. Between his previous research and this latest study, there are “potentially huge” implications in the battle against opioid addiction, which he points out has reached epidemic proportions in this country.

Addiction is responsible for more than six out of every 10 drug-related deaths involving an opiate, according the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But it’s not untreatable—read this inspiring story of a man who kicked the opiate habit. And before you feel a prescription for pain meds, make sure you talk to your doctor about alternatives—and these important opioid problems.