Ease Arthritis Symptoms With Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation empower people to deal with the pain and stress of arthritis.
Could something as simple as taking a few minutes each day to stop, think, breathe and focus on your physical and psychological state really relieve your aching joints? More and more experts say yes – these ancient practices of mindfulness and meditation really work in the battle against chronic pain from arthritis.
Known as mindfulness/meditation therapy, there are many variations of basic meditation being practiced and studied for the management of arthritis pain, says Andrea Minick Rudolph, a meditation expert and therapist based in Harrisburg, Pa.
“We don’t choose to have arthritis, but we can choose how to respond to it and to cope with it,” says Rudolph, a deep muscle massage therapist and Zen Buddhist priest who practices daily meditation and trains others to use the techniques to cope with their arthritis pain. “By not allowing pain to define our lives, we can change how we view and relate to pain. That’s mindfulness – we are changing our feelings and thoughts around pain."
What is Meditation?
Meditation is an umbrella term for many different mind-body practices that use contemplative thought and relaxation techniques to ease anxiety, pain, stress or insomnia. Some 20 million Americans now practice some form of meditation, according to a 2007 National Institutes of Health survey.
“It’s important to note that arthritis pain will always be there. With mindfulness/meditation, as with any alternative therapy, it’s the perception of pain and the management of pain that makes the difference,” Rudolph says. “The ability to deal with thoughts around pain is the important step to reduce and manage pain.”
Mindfulness/meditation practices can be done either alone or in groups led by a health care professional. Techniques include:
- Deep-breathing exercises to boost relaxation
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (talking to a therapist about emotional issues) to help you focus on positive thoughts
- Body scanning or focused attention on your body’s physical sensations
- Yoga-based meditation
- Chanting or use of mantras (repeated words or phrases)
- Guided imagery or concentration on positive visual images or scenes
- Contemplative walking, common in Japan and in Buddhist traditions
How Does Meditation Work?
How does meditation really affect pain and other symptoms of arthritis? Steven Rosenzweig, MD, an emergency medicine doctor who also studies the benefits of meditation on people with chronic pain and other conditions at Drexel University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, sees three ways that the practice helps his patients and study subjects.
“One, it’s possible for the pain intensity in these patients to be lowered. Two, the cycles of pain escalation can be moderated. And three, the pain may be there, but it becomes less intrusive on one’s life or thoughts,” he says.
Through meditation, people with arthritis can come to terms with their pain and realize that their experience of life can be wider than pain. “We learn how to stay connected with what is pleasant and nourishing in life. We call these the interstices – the places in between” the painful moment, Dr. Rosenzweig says. “Our experience becomes enriched and enlivened by moments of enjoyment and pleasure.”
That dovetails with a form of meditation Rudolph and many other practitioners use, which she calls “open awareness,” where the goal is not to repress thoughts about pain, but to try “letting them in and observing them.”
Meditation’s goal is to relax the mind and body, engage feelings about pain or other challenges, release tension and tap into a positive outlook – despite a chronic illness like arthritis. Focusing on negativity, especially on feelings of loss of health and well-being, only exacerbates pain, Rudolph says. “Meditation helps bring things into present-moment awareness, to see where we are, and assess things in that moment.”
It’s easy for someone with a chronic illness to give into pain and feelings of victimization, says Rudolph, who has been working with the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Public Health Institute to bring these techniques to more people with arthritis. “My job is to bring them out of a victim mentality and bring them to a place where they feel they have a choice. With our thoughts, we create a reality. We can actually change our neural pathways by changing the way we think.”
A Scientific Approach to Meditation
Many in the medical community agree with Rudolph that mindfulness/meditation practice can help people with arthritis take control of their pain and emotions and manage them more successfully. Scientific studies are showing the positive results of meditation practice for people with arthritis pain.
“If you’re a skeptic [about meditation], you’re standing on an island of ice that is slowly shrinking,” says Dr. Rosenzweig, who was impressed by the positive results of patients using the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Meditation, says Dr. Rosenzweig, allows people struggling with chronic pain and its psychological effects, such as anxiety or depression, to recognize the positive aspects of their life, and to put pain in its place.
“This particular program [MBSR] is a health intervention. Not to turn people into talented meditators, but to teach people to improve their moment-to-moment experience in life,” says Dr. Rosenzweig, who also specializes in hospice and palliative care. “You have pain, and then there’s the reaction to that pain. Often, that reaction can make the pain worse.”
Meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy can interrupt that vicious cycle, he says. “You bring in some choices and practices that help to tone down the pain experience. With pain, tension can begin to arise in points of the body even distant from the point where the pain is originating. So we can attend to the body, make adjustments and relax certain areas before escalation to a crisis point.
Research Validates Meditation
Dr. Rosenzweig and his colleagues at Drexel have published a number of research studies on the benefits of MBSR for people with arthritis and related chronic pain conditions like back pain. In a study published in 2010 in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, he and his colleagues studied and surveyed more than 100 patients using meditation and saw measurable improvement in quality of life and psychological distress, as well as in reducing the intensity of pain and functional limitations. Results varied among the patients, but Dr. Rosenzweig is confident that this therapy can be a useful complement to a comprehensive approach to treating arthritis pain.
“Understandably, we have thoughts around pain, catastrophic thinking,” he says. People diagnosed with arthritis may think their futures are grim, and that their pain will always limit their enjoyment of life. “The response of the body is to become tenser. So mindfulness practice allows us to step back from negative thinking. We just come back to the present time, become calmer, and respond by working with the current situation.”
A number of studies have shown that mindfulness-based practices don’t just help people focus on positive thoughts and boost mood; they also improve physical symptoms. In fact, a 1998 study led by Kabat-Zinn helped patients with psoriasis undergoing phototherapy improve their skin symptoms faster than those who didn’t use meditation.
A recent study published by a group of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to documents the effects of an eight-week MBSR course. Areas of participants’ brains involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking actually became denser after two months of guided meditation practice.
Meditation Goes Where Medication Can’t
Despite powerful medications, people still struggle with pain and inflammation, both physically and psychologically. Meditation helps people with arthritis cope more effectively with their symptoms, says Alex Zautra, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe.
“The problems of these patients goes beyond what can be done with medicines we now have to treat them,” says Zautra, who has studied the effects of mindfulness/meditation therapies on people with RA and fibromyalgia. “Pain is not only a physical experience but an emotional one. Learning to manage those emotions is important for people with inflammatory disorders.”
While it’s not fully known yet how or why meditation can have positive effects on the neurological system and the sources of pain, brain scan evidence further cements the medical community’s growing acceptance of the benefits of meditation. “We are more certain than ever that this is for real,” Zautra says.
Zautra began studying meditation as a complementary therapy for arthritis after talking about subject with a rheumatologist. He and his colleagues studied 144 patients with RA and randomly broke them up into three groups: One receiving information on healthy living, one using standard cognitive-behavioral therapy for their pain, and one using a mindfulness/meditation practice.
Patients in the cognitive-behavioral therapy group showed the most improvement in self-reported pain measurements, as well as reductions in the levels of IL-6, an inflammatory cytokine (a protein involved in the immune response) in their blood. Those in the meditation group showed greater improvement in their ability to cope with pain, leading Zautra to conclude that these practices can help people with RA improve their symptoms, and cope more effectively with their disease. He also feels that people with arthritis that have psychological symptoms like anxiety or depression greatly benefit from meditation and similar practices.
Benefits of Meditation
“[Meditation] allows a person to become aware of and come to terms with all of their feelings” about their disease, says Zautra. “It helps you see and feel all of your emotions, not just the painful ones. In our study, we gently urged our patients to begin to open their minds to positive emotions, not just negative ones.”
Whether formal or informal, mediation is something a person with arthritis can practice regularly to cope more effectively with pain or to build a positive attitude about life, says Rudolph. She suggests people start with some sort of guided practice, either in a local group setting or by using a book or tape.
The benefits come with regular, sustained meditation, she notes. It won’t replace medications, healthy diet and physical activity, or surgery, but meditation can be a powerful complement to those treatments and healthy behaviors – because pain really starts in the mind.
“Dealing with the whole person is essential to healing,” she says. “The most compassionate we can be with ourselves is to accept a situation, manage it, and not let it define you as a person.”