Updated 18 January 2017

Meditation beats RA blues

A new programme shows that meditation helps for rheumatoid arthritis-related psychological symptoms, although not for the actual rheumatoid arthritis.


A painful, progressive autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis is associated with a high risk of depression double the risk of the healthy population, by conservative estimates -and various forms of psychological distress.

Increasingly, rheumatoid arthritis patients are turning to alternative therapies like meditation to ease the toll of their disease.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a meditation training program developed by Dr Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University Of Massachusetts Medical School.

MBSR teaches participants to relate differently to thoughts and emotions, and continually focus the mind on the present moment to increase clarity and calmness.

Programme has good track record

The programme has been shown to improve psychological symptoms in patients with fibromyalgia, cancer, and multiple sclerosis, among other conditions.

Researchers with the University of Maryland School of Medicine set out to assess the effect of this meditation therapy on depressive symptoms, psychological distress, general well-being, and disease activity among RA patients.

Featured in the October 2007 issue of Arthritis Care and Research supports the potential benefits of prescribing a course in MBSR along with the conventional course of physical and pharmacological therapy.

How the study was done

Recruited through community health fairs and ads in Baltimore newspapers, 63 adult RA patients were selected to participate in this novel pilot study.

Averaging 54 years in age, participants were mostly female, white, married, college educated, and comfortably middle-class. None had a history of psychiatric illness, alcohol or drug addiction, or other chronic pain disorders.

All patients remained under their rheumatologist’s care and continued to take their routine medications throughout the study.

Through random assignment, 31 of the participants received intensive MBSR therapy, starting with an eight week training course followed by a four month maintenance program.

The remaining 32 participants were designated to a waitlist, agreeing to attend assessment sessions in exchange for free MBSR training after the study’s end.

At baseline, and again at two months and six months into the study, both groups of participants underwent psychological and rheumatological examinations.

Students embraced programme

Researchers compared scores of psychological and physical disease symptoms among MBSR participants with those among controls.

Overwhelming, MBSR students embraced the program and kept up their mindfulness practice throughout the follow-up period.

After two months, both groups showed improvements in depressive, psychological, and emotional symptoms, with no significant benefits attributed to MBSR.

By six months, however, gains in the control group had largely disappeared, while MBSR participants maintained or improved further in psychological outcomes.

By the culmination of the study, the MBSR group achieved a significant 35 percent reduction in psychological distress.

Therapy had no impact on actual disease

Despite this dramatic improvement, the therapy had no impact on RA disease activity.

As the researchers acknowledge, the study had limitations, primarily its small sample size and its likely floor effect.

On the strength of their backgrounds, participants might have been less vulnerable to psychological distress and depression than RA patients with fewer socioeconomic advantages, not to mention those with a history of mental illness or substance abuse.

Yet, these limitations should not overshadow the positive findings and applications.

“The study demonstrated that for patients with RA under routine medical supervision, an eight week MBSR class plus a four month maintenance program had beneficial effects, and that it was safe and appealing to participants,” notes investigator Elizabeth Pradhan, PhD.

“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.”

Read more:

Meditation may reduce depression, anxiety and pain

Health benefits of meditation 

treating rheumatoid arthritis


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Professor Asgar Ali Kalla completed his MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 1975 at the University of Cape Town and his FRCP in 2003 in London. Professor Ali Kalla is the Isaac Albow Chair of Rheumatology at the University of Cape Town and also the Head of Division of Rheumatology at Groote Schuur Hospital. He has participated in a number of clinical trials for rheumatology and is active in community outreach. Prof Ali Kalla is an expert in Arthritis for Health24.

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