Utilizing meditation to reduce stress has shown promise in alleviating some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis patients, according to research presented at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Scientific Meeting in San Diego, California. Meditation has been a practice of contemplative traditions for centuries. However, the study of its therapeutic properties has occurred more recently, with published scientific investigations indicating its association with reduced cardiovascular risk factors, decreased psychological distress and improved sleep patterns. Support for this approach has grown, thanks to research suggesting that programs like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which incorporates meditation, yoga and relaxation exercises, may lead to these beneficial results.
To more definitively assess the effect of MBSR in reducing psychological distress and rheumatoid arthritis disease activity, researchers conducted a study among 63 predominately female rheumatoid arthritis patients. Participants were randomly assigned to either an MBSR class once a week for 8 weeks or a waitlist control group. The MBSR group was asked to practice meditation, yoga and relaxation exercises at home 6 days a week. The waitlist control group was offered the MBSR class at the end of the study.
All participants attended assessment sessions at the time they joined the study, 2 months later and again 6 months later. The assessments included an examination by a rheumatologist for tender and swollen joints, completion of a self-report questionnaire to monitor psychological distress and a blood test to measure erythrocyte sedimentation rate, a non-specific test of inflammation. All participants remained under the regular care of their rheumatologists during the study and continued with their normally prescribed medications.
When the study began, both groups showed moderate levels of disease activity and above normal levels of psychological distress. Two months later, there was no change in disease activity, but the MBSR group showed a 20% reduction in psychological distress compared to the control group. At the end of the 6-month observation period, there was a 33% reduction in psychological distress, an 11% decrease in rheumatoid arthritis disease activity and a 46% decrease in erythrocyte sedimentation rate (indicating less inflammation) in the MBSR group compared to the control group, all of which were statistically significant.
“While physicians have treated rheumatoid arthritis competently with a range of effective medications, this study shows that mindfulness-based stress reduction may complement that therapy and provide additional benefit to people with this disease,” said Elizabeth Kimbrough Pradhan, MPH, co-investigator of the study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore. “Our results indicate that MBSR may reduce psychological distress and disease activity among rheumatoid arthritis patients. Doctors may wish to recommend a meditation-based program to patients in addition to the medication regimen already prescribed.”
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