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Study: Mindfulness exercises ease arthritis suffering

Wednesday December 21, 2011
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“Mindfulness” exercises focusing on experiencing the present moment, no matter how difficult, can help curb the stress and fatigue associated with painful rheumatoid joint disease, according to a small study.

Norwegian researchers based their findings on 73 patients ages 20 to 70, all of whom had experienced painful joint disease caused by rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis or psoriatic arthritis for at least a year.

Half the patients were randomly allocated to scheduled mindfulness exercises, which took place in 10 group sessions over a period of 15 weeks, plus a booster session around six months after the course had ended.

The sessions, which were facilitated by healthcare professionals trained in mindfulness techniques, addressed particular topics including recognizing individual limitations and strong emotions, such as anger, joy and sorrow.

The exercises, which were part of the Vitality Training Programme, encouraged participants to become aware of — and deliberately concentrate on — their feelings, thoughts and bodily experiences, including pain, without judging or trying to avoid them. Participants also were given creative exercises, such as guided imagery, music and drawing, and shared their experiences with other members of the group.

The rest of the volunteers, who were randomly allocated to the comparison group, received standard care plus a CD containing similar exercises for use at home on a schedule of their choosing.

Stress levels, coping abilities and symptom control, including pain and fatigue, were assessed using validated scores immediately after the completion of all 10 sessions and again a year later.

In total, 67 participants completed all the assessments. They showed no differences in pain levels, disease activity or the ability to talk about feelings. However, researchers found significant differences in levels of stress and fatigue.

The number of participants with a high stress score of above 23 in the GHQ-20 questionnaire fell from 13 at the start of the study to two only 12 months after the sessions had finished. Comparable figures in the comparison group were 10 and eight, respectively. In addition, researchers found a tangible fall in measured levels of fatigue in the intervention group, and no such change was evident in the comparison group.

There have been previous attempts to use psychological and educational tactics to help people with arthritis cope better with the distressing aspects of the disease, the authors said, but those attempts have tended to be short-term.

The lasting improvements found with the VTP course “indicated that the participants may have incorporated some mindfulness strategies into their daily lives and that these strategies have strengthened their ability to respond to their stressful experience in a more flexible way,” the authors wrote.

The authors emphasized while the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis has improved greatly, it is less effective in those with more established disease, and that ultimately the disease can only be controlled partly, forcing many patients to make demanding lifestyle changes.

“There is therefore a need for complementary interventions that enhance individuals’ health-promoting resources and help them adjust to their disease,” they concluded.

The study appears on the website of the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases. To read a summary and access the study via subscription or purchase, visit http://bit.ly/v6uKBf.

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