Meditation: Benefits for People with Arthritis
Mindfulness and meditation empower you to deal with the pain and stress of arthritis.
Imagine something as simple as taking a few minutes each day to stop, breathe and focus can help to ease your chronic joint pain. Many experts say these practices really work in the battle against pain, as well as the depression that often accompanies chronic pain.
“We don’t choose to have arthritis, but we can choose how to respond to and cope with it,” says Andrea Minick Rudolph, a meditation expert and therapist based in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. “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 a mind-body practice used to increase calmness and physical relaxation, improve psychological balance, relieve depression, cope with illness, and enhance overall health and well-being.
There are many types of meditation, but most have four things in common.
- It’s done in a quiet location with few distractions.
- You use a comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking).
- You focus your attention (on a word or set of words, an object, a body part, or your breath).
- You have open attitude (let thoughts come and go without judging them).
Does Meditation Work?
Many in the medical community agree meditation and particularly a practice called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can help people with arthritis take control of their pain and symptoms of depression. Scientific studies are backing up what millions of people over the centuries have known: meditation can be beneficial for people living with chronic pain.
A meta-analysis of 38 randomized controlled trials of mindfulness meditation was published in 2017 in Annals of Behavioral Medicine. The authors concluded that the practice “improves pain and depression symptoms and quality of life.” The analysis determined, however, the quality of evidence was low for pain relief, but higher for depression relief.
Several 2016 studies found that meditation does indeed help control pain. A review published in Military Medicine concluded that mindfulness-based practices effectively reduce pain intensity, improve functional status, and improve quality of life.
A study presented in 2016 at the 22nd Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping in Geneva, Switzerland found that meditation practice focused on the breath significantly reduced pain-related activity in the brain.
A randomized controlled trial published in JAMA in 2016 found that MBSR and another mind-bind therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) equally relieved back pain. Both were better than usual care alone at alleviating pain and improving function.
How Does Meditation Work?
Meditation’s goal is to relax the mind and body, acknowledge and release feelings about pain or other challenges, let go of tension, and tap into a positive outlook. Focusing on negativity exacerbates pain, Rudolph says. Mindfulness practice allows you to step back from that negative thinking. It brings focus to the present moment and allows you to interrupt the vicious cycle of negativity and pain.
“With our thoughts, we create a reality,” says Rudolph.
Meditation as Part of Your Treatment Plan
Despite powerful medications, people still struggle with pain and inflammation. Meditation helps people with arthritis cope more effectively with their symptoms, said Alex Zautra, PhD, in an interview before he passed away in 2016. Zautra was a researcher and professor of clinical psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe.
“The problems of these patients go beyond what can be done with medicines we have to treat them,” says Zautra, who studied the effects of meditation 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.”
Whether formal or informal, mediation can be practiced regularly to help you cope with pain and build a positive attitude about life, says Rudolph. The benefits come with regular, sustained meditation, she notes. It won’t replace medications, a healthy diet and physical activity, or surgery; but meditation can be a powerful complement to those treatments.
“Dealing with the whole person is essential to healing,” she says. “The most compassionate you can be with yourself is to accept your situation, manage it, and not let it define you as a person.”
Learn some tips for getting started with a meditation practice in Meditation for Arthritis: How To.
Updated August 2017
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