A meditation and yoga program designed to reduce stress failed to provide significant relief for people with fibromyalgia, according to a new study in the journal Pain.

“We were surprised. We had a predecessor study where we found strong effects and we expected to find them again. What we found was only half the size of the effects we expected,” explains Stefan Schmidt, PhD, of the University Medical Center in Freiburg, Germany. But Schmidt says that his results may have been skewed by the measuring technique he used, which exhausted patients suffering from the chronic pain condition.

Schmidt’s eight-week study involved 177 women split into three groups. One group did the mindfulness program, which involved mediation and yoga exercises and learning to adopt a different attitude about life with fibromyalgia. One control group was taught relaxation and stretching exercises and another control group was put on a waiting list for treatment and not given any intervention. All three groups reported a small to medium improvement in their quality of life.

“Patients in the mindfulness group showed consistently the largest improvement in all measures, so we are quite sure that the intervention worked well. Almost all these improvements were also significant if we compared health status before the mindfulness intervention with health status after the intervention. The only thing we couldn't show was that these improvements were better than that of the control group,” Schmidt explains.

Schmidt says he thinks the monitoring system researchers used might have affected the results. Participants complained they were exhausted after wearing a vest, having their walking and breathing monitored and having to fill out lengthy questionnaires.

Stephen T. Wegener, PhD, an associate professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore says you would hope that if a treatment were robust and effective, then reporting problems wouldn’t negate the benefits. Still, he says he wouldn’t rule out mindfulness therapy for all patients simply because this study didn’t show a blockbuster benefit.

“It may be that different treatments work for different people,” Wegener says. “Some patients have more or less pain or fatigue so it’s likely that different people will benefit from different approaches.”

He says this study may also have been hampered by the fact that participants didn’t get to pick the treatment – but instead were randomly assigned to it.

“There’s considerable literature that [shows] if people choose and get the treatment they want, they tend to have better outcomes,” Wegener says. “It may be important in a [condition] like fibromyalgia that there be more careful patient-treatment matching, particularly if we think fibromyalgia has to do with a disorder of pain perception and sensation. People’s preferences and desires and expectations will shape their sensations and perceptions.”

Wegener says patients also need to realize that just because an approach doesn’t work for everyone, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try it.

“It may be there are particular individuals that would benefit from this approach,” Wegener says. “As part of a comprehensive treatment program, these things fit in quite well.”

Schmidt agrees. “Everybody who feels that there is no more positive development with his or her disease should try these methods. You only find out by trying and many others so far had tremendous success with this approach.”