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.

More recently, a study published this year 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.