PAIN
January 16, 2011

Mindfulness Therapy vs. Fibromyalgia

Can mindfulness therapy reduce the pain experienced by people with this baffling condition?

A program of mindfulness-based stress reduction did not improve the quality of life of fibromyalgia sufferers in a recent German trial.

Mindfulness therapy was developed in 1979. It's an eight-week program that includes yoga and meditation. In a broad sense, it tries to teach people how to be less affected by the distressing events in their lives. Mindfulness has been described as the opposite of mindlessness.

All of the three groups showed a slight improvement in quality of life over time. But there was no significant difference in improvement in any of the three groups.

Studies have suggested that mindfulness therapy helps people to control overeating and depression. But fibromyalgia may be too tough a nut to crack.

Fibromyalgia is a condition marked by widespread pain and tender points, with no known organic reason for these symptoms. Standard treatments include painkillers, antidepressants, behavioral therapy and exercise. They're often ineffective. Some researchers believe that fibromyalgia is caused by an as-yet unknown difference in the way the brain processes pain.

No one is really sure what causes fibromyalgia.

Previous studies have found that fibromyalgia patients have a higher than average incidence of stressful life events. Other studies suggest that they are less aware of their emotions and have more trouble holding onto positive feelings than people without fibromyalgia do. Since mindfulness therapy places a strong emphasis on people being in tune with their emotional state and how it affects their physical well-being, the researchers thought fibromyalgia patients would be a good candidate for mindfulness therapy.

But the results did not bear this out.

The study was of 177 German women with fibromyalgia. The women were split into three groups. One group underwent the eight-week mindfulness training, a second group received relaxation training and was taught gentle stretching exercises but was not taught mindfulness, and a third group was put on a waiting list for treatment.

All three groups completed a standard questionnaire to rate their health quality of life at the beginning of the program, right after the end of the program and again two months later. All of the three groups showed a slight improvement in quality of life over time. But there was no significant difference in improvement in any of the three groups.

It's possible that emotional awareness may not be enough for fibromyalgia patients. They may need additional help. It's also possible that emotional factors only play a small role in the condition.

Another trial testing whether mindfulness therapy can help people with fibromyalgia is currently underway at Arizona State University.

An early online version of an article detailing the results of the German trial was published by the journal Pain on December 13, 2010.

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