In a new study, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients reported less psychological distress after learning and practicing meditation for six months, compared with RA patients who didn't get meditation training during that time.
Meditation didn't cure RA or erase the joint disease's physical symptoms. But it appeared to help the patients deal with those symptoms, according to the researchers, who included the University of Maryland's Elizabeth Pradhan, PhD, MPH.
The study appears in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.
Pradhan and colleagues studied 63 adults with rheumatoid arthritis. All of the patients continued to get rheumatology care throughout the study.
The researchers randomly split the patients into two groups. One group took an eight-week class in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
The MBSR program -- developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts' medical school -- has been shown to reduce psychological distress in patients with other conditions, but this was its first test in RA patients.
Here's how Pradhan's team describes the program: "MBSR teaches participants to notice and relate differently to thoughts and emotions, with a sense of compassion for self and others. ... By continually bringing the mind back to the present moment, mindfulness meditation is thought to increase clarity, calmness, and well-being."
Participants took MBSR classes for eight weeks and were asked to practice meditation at home for 45 minutes per day, six days per week. The classes included sitting meditation, walking meditation, and gentle yoga appropriate for RA patients.
After their eight-week class ended, patients in the meditation group took three classes over the next four months to refresh their mindfulness skills.
For comparison, the other group of RA patients in Pradhan's study was waitlisted for a free MBSR training program held after the study ended.
The RA patients got physical checkups, took blood tests, and completed psychological surveys two months and six months after the study started.
At the two-month point, the groups reported similar reductions in psychological distress. That may be partly because they weren't extremely distressed to begin with, or because the patients who weren't in the meditation group got a psychological boost from participating in the study, Pradhan's team suggests.
At the end of the six-month study, those benefits continued only for patients in the meditation group.
Those patients cut their psychological distress by 35% during the study. That's the difference between being "extremely" distressed and being "a little bit" distressed, the researchers write.
The study has some limits, including its small size. The patients who participated may not be typical of all people with rheumatoid arthritis, note Pradhan and colleagues.
Then again, there was no downside to mindfulness training as an addition to conventional medical care.
"For doctors wishing to offer patients a complement to medical management, mindfulness meditation may offer hope for improving psychological distress and strengthening well-being in patients with RA," the researchers conclude.