Mindfulness Meditation for Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain: Does It Really Work?

Meditation for Fibromyalgia & Pain: Does it Really Work?

Meditation is a way to practice being present. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of meditation and medicine, meditation is a practice of cultivating mindfulness, which means “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

For this post, I wanted to look at some recent research on mindfulness meditation programs involving participants with chronic pain. The purpose of these studies was to assess whether mindfulness can lower pain, reduce depression, and improve quality of life.

The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach mindfulness meditation to patients had demonstrated remarkable benefits for reducing chronic pain as well as anxiety and depression. I personally have found that this approach has helped me to reduce my anxiety, improve my quality of life, and manage my pain. The MBSR intervention is structured so that participants attend weekly sessions where they learn “different types of formal mindfulness practice, mindful awareness during yoga postures, and mindfulness during stressful situations and social interactions” (p. 227, Grossman et al., 2007).

Researchers investigated the effect of MBSR programs for participants with mixed chronic pain conditions and the significance of at-home practice for pain management. The study measured results in terms of bodily pain, quality of life and psychological symptoms for each chronic pain condition (neck/back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic headache, and two or more coexisting conditions). The researchers discovered that the degree of benefit of participating in mindfulness programs varied depending on the chronic pain condition, but that overall improvements were seen in almost every category (Rosenzweig et al., 2010).

Rosenzweig (2010) suggests different possible causes for how meditation practice can improve chronic pain conditions:

  • First of all, nervous system pathways to parts of the brain associated with stress can be inhibited through mindfulness practice.
  • Secondly, reducing psychological symptoms like anxiety and depression can help because those symptoms can amplify the perception of pain.
  • Third, mindfulness practice can help improve emotional regulation and coping skills in stressful situations.
  • Fourth, mindfulness contributes physical self-awareness which could help lead to better self-care.
  • Finally, mindfulness can help activate nervous system function associated with rest and calm (parasympathetic nervous system), which in turn can lead to deep muscle relaxation that may reduce pain.

Similar results were found in a study of the effects of participating in an MBSR course for people with fibromyalgia (Grossman, et al., 2007). Significantly, the researchers interviewed about half of the original participants from the mindfulness training group 3 years later, and found sustained long-term benefits among those who continued their mindfulness practice (Grossman et al., 2007).

One research review compared 38 studies involving a total of 3500 participants. It examined previously published studies which investigated the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation as a treatment for chronic pain. They found that “mindfulness meditation was associated with a statistically significant improvement in depression, physical health-related quality of life, and mental health-related quality of life” (Hilton et al., 2017). In this review, participants showed promising outcomes on pain symptoms, but the degree of improvement was limited.

Research reviews like this are limited in their ability to compare and contrast different studies. Different meditation techniques were used in the different studies, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. In addition, the studies investigated outcomes in patients with different conditions, like fibromyalgia and migraine – which is like comparing apples to oranges. This highlights the need for more high-quality studies that include a greater number of participants with the same condition, using the same type of meditation program.

When it comes to trying mindfulness meditation, for people with chronic pain, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. Prescriptions rarely offer total relief, and come with unpleasant side effects. The only cost to meditation is a little bit of time. while the potential benefits are less pain, better mood, and a greater quality of life.

 

References:

Paul Grossman, Ulrike Gilmer, Annette Raysz and Ulrike Kesper. 2007. Mindfulness Training as an Intervention for Fibromyalgia: Evidence of Postintervention and 3-Year Follow-up Benefits in Well-being. Psychology and Psychosomatics 76: 226-233.

Steven Rosenzweig, Jeffrey Greeson, Diane Reibel, Joshua Green, Samar Jasser and Denise Beasley. 2010. MIndfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: Variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 68: 29-36.

Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B. A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., Maglione, M. A. (2017). Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine51(2), 199–213. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2

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8 thoughts on “Mindfulness Meditation for Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain: Does It Really Work?

    • Katarina Zulak says:

      I’ve put that program on my resources page! I’ve used some of their guided meditations. It’s helpful for people who are busy or have trouble getting out to have it online. Personally I do a shorter 10 min meditation but the longer ones are good too!

  1. Fibronacci says:

    A great post! I have written about the different types of meditation I have used for chronic pain as well, after reading several papers on it. I think the science behind this is fascinating!

  2. Krysta says:

    I tried this for about a year for “fibro” / “chronic fatigue”-I went to a CBT group then came home and did it for such a long time. Sometimes even 2 hours a day. They say some fibromyalgia may be due to psychosomatic stuff which I think this mindfullness could help with. And perhaps my anxiety was a little less-but I have to be honest-it didn’t really help me-my pain was still insane! I wonder if it was because I was recently diagnosed with lymes though? I think it matters if there is a viral/bacterial issue…of which, a lot of fibromyalgia patients are apparently suspected to have (there has been governmental studies-if you care to see it, its on one of my recent blog posts). Anyway, just wanted to give an honest opinion. If its depression/the psychosomatic thats causing health issues and pain-I think mindfulness could really help. But unfortunately, I think a lot of fibromyalgia patients have deeper causes… :S

    • Katarina Zulak says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience. Most mindfulness courses are separate from CBT courses, so I’d be interested to know whether yours merged the two? In my experience, the benefits were primarily in dealing with the emotional suffering of living with chronic pain and illness. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, frustration during flare-ups, frustration with waiting for results, cultivating resilience in the face of stress, finding enjoyment, all that type of stuff. I think the strongest evidence for mindfulness tends to be in the area of anxiety and depression, quality of life, stress management and that type of thing. As a result I think a lot of people see a reduction in their pain because their stress levels come down but like you say, it’s definitely not a cure or a standalone treatment. Personally I found a small reduction in my physical pain. It definitely does not address the underlying cause of disease, as you point out. There’s an overwhelming amount of research showing that conditions like fibromyalgia are not psychosomatic but have clear pathophysiology in the body. I think mindfulness meditation works best as part of a multi-pronged pain management strategy that includes medications, manual work like massage or physical therapy, ultra-gentle exercise, healthy eating etc.

      • Krysta says:

        Agreed! Definitely a multi-faceted approach. I was told the programs are very similar by the man who ran them, I can’t remember which one mine was more geared towards. I frustratingly didn’t notice much of reduction in anything-anxiety or depression! But recently found more reduction when I interact with people and share a burden, or write it out, or let emotion out by myself in its most potent form-whether that looks like bawling for an hour or being angry-(at least once a week to let emotion out), etc. I’ve heard good things about the EFT as well, and yoga for mindfulness-ish things. And even focusing on positive words and declarations for yourself. Its all such a maze! But I understand the concept behind mindfulness and (being kind, not being judgemental, letting things pass by, etc) and I think they are all good things. 🙂

        Thanks for your response!

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