Using Meditation to Relieve Arthritis Pain

Health Professional

What is meditation, and how could it be helpful for osteoarthritis?

Meditation is a state-of-mind in which you are completely relaxed and hyperaware of your surroundings all at the same time. Excuse me? How can you be completely relaxed and hyperaware simultaneously? That is the beauty of meditation - I'll explain.

Contrary to the image of meditation as an almost "sleep-like state," as it is sometimes described, meditation requires an acute awareness of yourself, your body, and your surroundings. In meditation, you become completely aware of everything that is going on inside of you and around you. You become engaged with your senses and register everything. You feel your breath entering and leaving your lungs. You feel the clothes on your body. You hear the birds outside and smell the scents in the air. You sense the beating of your own heart. As you become intimately aware of yourself and what you are feeling - what you are sensing - you focus yourself in the present. In many ways, this is the essence of meditation - being here, now. Through this awareness; through this being in the present, you achieve a deep state of relaxation.

Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual leader who has helped make many tenets of Eastern philosophy readily accessible to millions of Westerners. Tolle teaches to avoid identifying yourself with your mind. He teaches that you are a spiritual entity and you happen to be inhabiting your body. Your body comes equipped with many tools. Your body has arms to carry things, legs to walk, a mind to think in order to navigate the world, eyes to see, and ears to hear. The mind, in Tolle's view, is a tool much as the arms are tools. Tolle believes that people get themselves into trouble when they become too identified with their own mind. The mind, in a sense, tries to take over the spiritual entity. Tolle, and many Eastern philosophers, seek to teach their students to learn to dissociate themselves from their thoughts. This is what meditation seeks to achieve as wellIn meditation, you focus on your senses. But, as you do, thoughts will inevitably come into your head: "I'm tired." "I forgot to put the milk back in the refrigerator." "I need to buy dinner." "I wish that my boss had appreciated it when I stayed late yesterday."
Instead of engaging these thoughts with a running dialogue, when you are meditating you watch your thoughts. You watch them as if they were lines that came up on a screen, and then you watch those lines go away and you return to focusing on your breathing and other senses. As you get better and better at meditating, fewer thoughts will come into your head during your meditation sessions.
But how does all this help my osteoarthritis symptoms?
Meditation actually offers an excellent opportunity to confront and control your pain. By learning to "watch your thoughts" instead of becoming consumed by them, you also learn to better control your pain.

When you experience pain, learn to focus intently on it. Characterize it. Pain isn't just "pain." It has qualities: Is it sharp, shooting, burning, dull, or achy? Where is it located exactly? By focusing intensely on the pain, the pain, ironically, tends to lessen. Think of the pain as a dark shadow and, when meditating, you are focusing the light of your consciousness on it by describing it deep detail, which exposes the shadow and makes it disappear.

In 2004, Baird and Sands published a study in Pain Management Nursing in which they described 28 women with osteoarthritis who were randomly assigned to either a control group or a treatment group that was taught a guided imagery technique with progressive muscle relaxation. The women who were taught the guided-imagery reported a significant reduction in pain and improved mobility after twelve weeks. Another study by Gay, Philippot and Luminet in 2002, published in European Journal of Pain, found that patients with osteoarthritis had decreased pain when treated with hypnosis or relaxation treatments as compared with a control group.

Be aware that the research on meditation is certainly not conclusive. But the general body of data does suggest that relaxation techniques, including meditation, may be helpful for dealing with pain and improving function.

Should I try meditation?
I would never suggest that someone with osteoarthritis use meditation as their sole treatment method. However, I would suggest that if meditation is something you are interested in, you should talk to your doctor about it. Your doctor may have information for you about how to start meditating. Meditation has a host of potential health benefits that are beyond the scope of this blog. But, it is something that is worth reading more about and discussing with your doctor.

A Meditation Technique You Can Try Right Now
One easy technique to try on your own is to clear fifteen minutes of quiet time. Turn off your cell phone, beeper, Blackberry, and any other device around you that beeps, rings, or buzzes. Sit in a quiet, comfortable space. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. Count your breaths as you slowly inhale, and then slowly exhale. Continue this for ten minutes at first. It's not as easy as it sounds! Thoughts will come into your head. Don't engage those thoughts. Watch them come into your mind and then watch them depart. The more you do this, the better you will get at it. Eventually, you should feel your pain lessen.

Again, meditation will not cure your osteoarthritis. But, as you begin a comprehensive treatment for your symptoms that includes exercise, appropriate diet, and, possibly, supplementation, you may find that meditation is a useful adjunctive tool to focusing yourself and dealing with some of the pain and frustration associated with osteoarthritis.

Baird CL. Sands L. A pilot study of the effectiveness of guided imagery with progressive muscle relaxation to reduce chronic pain and mobility difficulties of osteoarthritis. Pain Management Nursing. 5(3):97-104, 2004 Sep.

Gay MC. Philippot P. Luminet O. Differential effectiveness of psychological interventions for reducing osteaorthritis pain: a comparison of Erikson [correction of Erickson] hypnosis and Jacobson relaxation. European Journal of Pain: Ejp. 6(1):1-16, 2002.