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, who is in the middle of a study of meditation’s benefits for people with fibromyalgia. “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.”