Could something as simple as taking a few minutes each day to stop, think, breathe and focus on your physical and psychological state really relieve your aching joints? More and more experts say yes – these ancient practices really work in the battle against chronic pain.

Known as mindfulness/meditation therapy, there are many variations of basic meditation being practiced and studied for the management of arthritis pain, says Andrea Minick Rudolph, a meditation expert and therapist based in Harrisburg, Pa.

“We don’t choose to have arthritis, but we can choose how to respond to it and to cope with it,” says Rudolph, a deep muscle massage therapist and Zen Buddhist priest who practices daily meditation and trains others to use the techniques to cope with their arthritis pain. “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 an umbrella term for many different mind-body practices that use contemplative thought and relaxation techniques to ease anxiety, pain, stress or insomnia. Some 20 million Americans now practice some form of meditation, according to a 2007 National Institutes of Health survey.

“It’s important to note that arthritis pain will always be there. With mindfulness/meditation, as with any alternative therapy, it’s the perception of pain and the management of pain that makes the difference,” Rudolph says. “The ability to deal with thoughts around pain is the important step to reduce and manage pain.”

Mindfulness/meditation practices can be done either alone or in groups led by a health care professional. Techniques include:

  1. Deep-breathing exercises to boost relaxation
  2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (talking to a therapist about emotional issues) to help you focus on positive thoughts
  3. Body scanning or focused attention on your body’s physical sensations
  4. Yoga-based meditation
  5. Chanting or use of mantras (repeated words or phrases)
  6. Guided imagery or concentration on positive visual images or scenes
  7. Contemplative walking, common in Japan and in Buddhist traditions

How Does Meditation Work?

How does meditation really affect pain and other symptoms of arthritis? Steven Rosenzweig, MD, an emergency medicine doctor who also studies the benefits of meditation on people with chronic pain and other conditions at Drexel University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, sees three ways that the practice helps his patients and study subjects.

“One, it’s possible for the pain intensity in these patients to be lowered. Two, the cycles of pain escalation can be moderated. And three, the pain may be there, but it becomes less intrusive on one’s life or thoughts,” he says.

Through meditation, people with arthritis can come to terms with their pain and realize that their experience of life can be wider than pain. “We learn how to stay connected with what is pleasant and nourishing in life. We call these the interstices – the places in between” the painful moment, Dr. Rosenzweig says. “Our experience becomes enriched and enlivened by moments of enjoyment and pleasure.”