Mindfulness Meditation for Arthritis

Mindfulness and arthritis

Our brain and body are complex, interconnected systems. Did you know that people under stress heal slower from wounds, have bigger inflammatory reactions to illness or injury, and are even more prone to catching the flu? We are quickly learning that you cannot look after your body without also looking after your mind. So, while you cannot “think” your way into having arthritis, we can harness the power of our brain to help us manage symptoms after diagnosis.

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness is quickly emerging in Western medicine as one way to do this. Mindfulness-based meditation has roots in ancient Asian religious and spiritual practices for over 2,500 years. However, Western medicine is increasingly incorporating the mind-body connection in the last few decades. This is not new for many cultures.

What is mindfulness?

For some people, mindfulness is a very spiritual process; for others, it is not. In its less spiritual understanding, “Mindfulness means paying attention to what is presently occurring, with kindness and curiosity” (Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand).

Have you ever walked around mindlessly, ending up somewhere but not entirely sure how you got there? Think of mindfulness as the opposite. Modern society has taught us that efficiency is vital, so we have become less practised in being aware of and appreciating our surroundings. It is not about changing our surroundings but accepting them for what they are.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Mindfulness has strong evidence for improving mental health, but we are learning more about how it helps our physical health because of the mind-body connection.

Benefits of regular mindfulness practice can include:

  • Reduced depression and anxiety
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Reduced psychological symptoms of chronic conditions
  • Improved sleep
  • Better pain control

Some studies have looked specifically at how mindfulness could be helpful for people with inflammatory arthritis. A systematic review and meta-analysis were published on this topic in 2020. This type of study reviews already-published research in this area to see if there is a consensus. The authors concluded that:

  • As a complementary therapy in clinical practice, mindfulness interventions can improve pain intensity, depression, and symptoms in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • None of the studies reported adverse events, so there appears to be little risk in trying mindfulness.

The study recommended the use of mindfulness both in clinics and making use of online resources. There were only six studies included in the review, so there is still a need for more research in this area. With no adverse effects found in any of the studies included in this meta-analysis, it is a safe complementary therapy for you to try.

How Can I Start Practising Mindfulness?

We think this video from Headspace explains the concept really well:

Try These Steps To Start With:

Settle In: Find a quiet space. Using a cushion or chair, sit up straight and allow your head and shoulders to rest comfortably. Place your hands on the tops of your legs with upper arms at your sides.

Breathe: Close your eyes and take a deep breath through the nose and relax. Feel the fall and rise of your chest. With each breath, notice the coolness as it enters and the warmth as it leaves. Don’t control the breath, but follow its natural flow.

Stay focused: Thoughts will pull your attention away from the breath. Notice them, and gently return your focus to the breath. You may count your breaths to help you stay focused.

Take 10 minutes a day: Start with 10 minutes a day and move to 20 minutes for maximum benefit.

If you feel any distress while practising mindfulness meditation, stop and consult with your doctor, counsellor, or psychologist. You can always ring or text 1737 if you need to speak with someone urgently.

You can use online platforms that mindfulness practitioners have created and made available for free for more guidance. Some are free or have a limited free version. Here are some popular ones available (as at March 2022):

Mindfulness Works on SoundCloud – completely free! Made available by New Zealand’s largest Mindfulness training provider.

Balance: Meditation & Sleep  – we recommend snapping up the Balance app’s offer for a free year’s subscription. Don’t forget to unsubscribe before your free year has finished or you will end up paying.

Meditation and Sleep Made Simple – Headspace – there is a cost for this app. You can, however, access some of their videos for free on YouTube.

Calm – The App for Meditation and Sleep – limited free content, then it is a paid service too.

Orokoroa – Māori Meditation – Turuki Health Care – There are a few free, beautiful sessions, and an option to pay for more.

Curable – another paid app, which uses mindfulness as one part of a larger treatment plan. Excellent for people with persistent pain.


Getting Help with Learning Mindfulness

If you want some help in learning mindfulness, you can search for a mindfulness practitioner in your area. As always, be wary of services or products that make unrealistic claims about curing your condition—there is no good scientific evidence that mindfulness can cure any form of arthritis.

Working with a practitioner will cost you money, so make sure you do your research and set realistic expectations to make sure money is well spent. Many qualified psychologists and counsellors use mindfulness as part of their evidence-based treatments, and these sessions can be expensive. Many other people can help teach you mindfulness—it is a traditional spiritual practice after all—but always inquire about how they know what they know.

You should never pay more than you can afford to spare for complementary therapy. If the person is charging a lot of money, it’s worth considering whether their product is really for the benefit of your health or the benefit of lining their pockets.

Guidelines: How To Choose a Mindfulness Service or Product

  1. Your GP may be able to refer you for some free sessions, depending on your circumstances.
  2. Make sure the practitioner has relevant training and qualifications. Just because someone is talking about mindfulness doesn’t mean they have the training to teach this safely to others.
  3. Do a Google search. If you find anything negative about this organisation or practitioner in the press, it should come up in a quick online search.
  4. If the service being provided is based on another programme that the person may have trained in, Google that programme. It may have been discredited or not founded on the established science. Therefore, not a great way to spend your money and time.
  5. Don’t sign up for anything or make any decisions when you have a flare-up, a particularly rough day, or insomnia. In these times, you are more vulnerable to parting with your money in ways that you may not otherwise, without doing the background checks as outlined above.
  6. Testimonials aren’t science. The medicines act 58 (1) (c) (iii) prevents the use of patient testimonials in advertisements to consumers for medicines or medical devices or methods of treatment. One reason for this is that the person who is giving the glowing review may not be anything like you. Regulated health treatments must be proven to work more than the placebo effect or against a control group. Unregulated treatments don’t require any proof of anything. We encourage you to choose evidence over testimonials when it comes to your health.
  7. If you are ever unsure, ask a loved one or your doctor if they can offer advice.

 

Remember that mindfulness is a complementary therapy and should not replace your usual medical treatments. If in doubt, always ask your doctor.

This article has been reviewed by Caitlin Helme, registered intern psychologist, clinical scope, as someone living and working with rheumatoid arthritis.

 

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