A program aimed at easing stress with meditation and yoga may not be much help for people with the chronic-pain condition fibromyalgia, a recent study suggests.
The study, published in the journal Pain, looked at the effects of so-called mindfulness-based stress reduction — a technique developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts in 1979 that combines mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga postures.
The technique is now available throughout the world — in the form of an eight-week program of classes — to help people manage general stress or health problems, including chronic pain.
For the new study, researchers led by Dr. Stefan Schmidt, of the University Medical Center in Freiburg, Germany, tested the program’s effects among 177 women with fibromyalgia.
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They found that women assigned to the mindfulness program showed no greater gains in health-related quality of life than those assigned to a waiting list for treatment.
That meant no significant improvements in either physical symptoms or emotional well-being.
“I’m surprised it didn’t work better than it did,” Dr. Alex Zautra, a professor in psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe, told Reuters Health. Zautra, who was not involved in the study, said he would have expected better results since people with fibromyalgia would seem to be good candidates for the mind-body therapy.
Fibromyalgia is a syndrome marked by widespread pain — including discomfort at specific “tender points” in the body — along with symptoms like fatigue, irritable bowel and sleep problems. It is estimated to affect up to 5 million U.S. adults, most commonly middle-aged women.
The precise cause of fibromyalgia is unknown. There are no physical markers, like inflammation or tissue damage in the painful areas — but some researchers believe the disorder involves problems in how the brain processes pain signals.
Standard treatments include painkillers, antidepressants, cognitive-behavioral therapy and exercise therapy. However, many people with fibromyalgia find that their symptoms persist despite treatment.
One reason, some researchers suspect, may be because standard treatments do not specifically address the role psychological stress and emotions can play in triggering pain.
Studies have found that people with fibromyalgia have higher-than-average rates of stressful life events, like childhood abuse and marital problems. There’s also evidence suggesting they are less aware of their own emotions and have more difficulty holding on to positive feelings compared to people without fibromyalgia.
The idea behind mindfulness practices, Zautra said, is that people become more aware of how they are feeling, emotionally and physically, from moment to moment. Then they can start to see how their emotions affect their perceptions of their physical symptoms.
But maybe the problem, Zautra said, is that “awareness by itself is not enough for patients with fibromyalgia.”
That is, people with the disorder may need extra help in learning how to manage the emotions that come up when they meditate or practice mindfulness-based yoga.
Another recent study of the “mind-body” approach to fibromyalgia suggested that patients can benefit from addressing their emotions. In that study of 45 women with fibromyalgia, about half of those who underwent a therapy called “affective self-awareness” reported a significant improvement in their pain over six months.
Affective self-awareness — a newer therapy that is not widely available — tries to get people to “directly engage” their emotions with the help of various techniques. Mindfulness meditation and “expressive” writing are two of them.
Zautra and his colleagues are in the middle of a clinical trial testing their own mindfulness-based program against standard cognitive-behavioral therapy and general health education for people with fibromyalgia.
So the “jury is still out,” Zautra said, as to whether some fibromyalgia patients can benefit from mindfulness practices.
In the meantime, if someone with the disorder wants to try a mindfulness meditation class, “this study doesn’t tell them not to,” Zautra said.
“But don’t expect it to cure your pain,” he added. “This study raises questions about when and for whom (mindfulness techniques) may be helpful.”
The current findings are based on 177 women with fibromyalgia who were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one that went through the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program; an “active” control group that received relaxation training and learned gentle stretching exercises; and a second control group where patients were put on a waiting list for treatment.
All of the women completed a standard questionnaire to rate their health-related quality of life at the beginning of the study, directly after the therapy program ended, and again two months later.
Overall, Schmidt’s team found, the entire study group showed a small improvement in quality of life over time. But there were no significant differences between the three groups.
According to Zautra, one possibility is that only certain subsets of fibromyalgia patients stand to benefit from this or other mindfulness-based therapies.
In one of his own studies, Zautra said, people with rheumatoid arthritis who also had a history of depression benefited more from mindfulness meditation than arthritis patients who had never battled depression.
It’s possible — though not proven — that the same pattern could hold true for fibromyalgia patients, he noted.