A small study published online in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases reveals that “Mindfulness” exercises, irrespective of how difficult they are, that focus on experiencing the present moment can help to limit the stress and fatigue linked to painful rheumatoid joint disease.

Researchers assessed 73 patients aged between 20 and 70 years with painful joint disease due to rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, or psoriatic arthritis for a minimum of 12 months. Half of the patients were randomly allocated to receive 10 group sessions of “mindfulness” exercises over a course of 15 weeks, plus a booster session about 6 months following the completion of the course, whilst the other half received standard care plus a CD with similar exercises home use, as and when they wanted.

The exercise sessions, which were part of VTP’s Vitality Training Program, were held by healthcare professionals who were trained in mindfulness techniques. During each session they addressed particular topics, including the recognition of each individual’s limitations as well as dealing with strong emotions like anger, joy and sorrow.

Participants were encouraged to practice awareness and deliberately focus on their feelings, thoughts and bodily experiences without judging or trying to avoid them. This also applied to pain. Other sessions consisted of creative exercises like guided imagery, music and drawing and subsequently sharing experiences with other group members.

After all 10 sessions were finished the researchers evaluated the participants’ coping abilities, stress levels and symptom control, including pain and fatigue by using validated scores. The assessment was repeated 12 months later.

From a total of 67 participants who completed all assessments, the researchers observed no differences in pain levels, disease activity or the ability to talk about feelings, however they did observe substantial differences in stress levels and fatigue.

From 13 participants who scored a high stress score of over 23 in the GHQ-20 questionnaire 11 participants stress level was lower, with only two maintaining their high stress score after just 12 months after the sessions had finished, whilst in the control group 10 participants started out with a high stress score of over 23 with eight reporting lower levels of stress.

The researchers did however note a significant reduction in measured levels of fatigue amongst the intervention group whereas the control group reported no such change.

According to the researchers, earlier attempts of using psychological and educational tactics to help arthritis sufferers cope better with the distressing aspects of their disease tended to be short term.

They say the lasting improvements observed in the VTP course: “indicate 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,” emphasizing that although rheumatoid arthritis therapies have greatly improved, they tend to be less effective in individuals in whom the disease is more established. They continue saying that ultimately the disease can only be controlled in part and that it forces many patients to undertake extremely demanding changes in their style of life.

They conclude saying:

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

Written by Petra Rattue