For centuries, meditation has been used to help focus the mind and soothe the spirit. But scientific evidence suggests this ancient practice – particularly a modern form known as mindfulness meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) – offers a variety of health benefits, including relief for chronic joint pain and skin disorders like psoriasis.
People with psoriasis were involved in some of the earliest research on mindfulness meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, who developed the original MBSR program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, knew that stress worsens psoriasis. In a small 1988 study, he showed that skin cleared more quickly in patients who listened to mindfulness meditation tapes while undergoing light therapy compared to patients who received the same treatment without listening to the recordings.
Since then, interest has steadily grown in mindfulness meditation’s potential as a therapy for managing arthritis symptoms.
In 2015, research published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases looked at the effect of mindfulness meditation on RA. In that study, researchers compared 26 RA patients who took the 8-week MBSR course with RA patients who didn’t enroll in the program. At the end of the study, both groups had the same number of swollen joints, yet people in the MBSR group reported less pain and stiffness.
In another 2015 study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, RA patients enrolled in a mindfulness meditation program showed greater improvement in morning stiffness, fatigue, stress and anxiety than did patients who received other types of therapy.
With this research in mind, some rheumatologists now recommend mindfulness meditation to patients with arthritis.
“The feedback I get from patients is astonishing,” says Nisha Manek, MD, chief of rheumatology at Kingman Regional Medical Center, in Kingman, Arizona. “One patient recently said meditating allowed her to return to work, while another insists it saved her marriage.”
How does it work?
In mindfulness meditation, you become fully aware and present in every moment in an open, nonjudgmental way. Kabat-Zinn says this can help you see the world with greater clarity, insight and compassion.
Experts say it can also change how you perceive and respond to pain.
“The stress associated with pain is often what creates most of our suffering,” says psychiatrist Carl Fulwiler, MD, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and medical director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. Meditation’s ability to defuse stress and anxiety allows people to view their pain more objectively, he says.
He explains that a practice known as a body scan can be particularly helpful for chronic pain. During the practice, patients are instructed to focus on different parts of their bodies – including the parts that hurt – for 30 to 45 minutes.
“For people with pain, that may seem counterintuitive,” Dr. Fulwiler says, “yet the process helps people become aware of their whole body, not just the pain. They realize, ‘There is pain in my body, but my pain is not me.’”
Mindfulness meditation likely eases pain in several ways. Some, though not all, studies suggest the practice lowers levels of cytokines and other proteins that promote inflammation. Mindfulness meditation may also alter how the brain responds to pain.
Wake Forest University neurobiologist Fadel Zeidan, PhD, and colleagues conducted a study in which they asked people to rate their pain after a hot probe was applied to their skin. The researchers then trained the participants in mindfulness meditation and tested them with the hot probe again – this time while they were meditating. They rated their pain as 40% less intense than before.
Zeidan’s team also scanned participants’ brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging each time they were touched with the probe. During meditation, brain regions associated with the ability to control thoughts and emotions became more active.
What’s more, meditating reduced activity in the region known as the thalamus, where pain signals from the body enter the brain. Zeidan thinks that may mean mindfulness meditation blocks the brain’s ability to perceive pain.
Best of all, perceived pain levels dipped after participants had been practicing mindfulness meditation for only four days. That’s important, Zeidan says, because people want immediate relief.
Author: Timothy Gower
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