Mindfulness Meditation vs. Multiple Sclerosis

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Sept. 27, 2010 — Learning a mind-body technique called “mindfulness meditation” seems to help people with multiple sclerosis cope with the depression, fatigue, and anxiety associated with the disease, a new study indicates.

Researchers in Switzerland signed up 150 people with mild to moderate multiple sclerosis and randomly assigned them to receive usual types of care for the disease or to take part in an eight-week mindfulness meditation training course.

Patients in the training program focused on mental exercises that were aimed at developing non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, or mindfulness. Classes of 2.5 hours were held weekly, along with an all-day retreat and 40 minutes daily of homework assignments.

Meditation Technique Works

The researchers say people who took the meditation training managed to reduce fatigue, depression, and anxiety and report improvements in overall life quality, compared to people who received usual medical care. And the positive effects of the training, the researchers report, lasted for at least six months.

“People with MS must often confront special challenges of life related to profession, financial security, recreational and social activities and personal relationships, not to mention the direct fears associated with current or future physical symptoms and disability,” study author Paul Grossman, PhD, of the University of Basel in Switzerland, says in a news release. “Unfortunately, the treatments that help slow the disease process may have little direct effect on people’s overall quality of life, fatigue, or depression. So any complementary treatments that can quickly and directly improve quality of life are very welcome.”

MS an Unpredictable Disease

Grossman mentions in the study that MS is an unpredictable disease, that some people can feel good for months and then have an attack that can reduce their ability to work or take care of their family.

“Mindfulness training can help those with MS better cope with these changes,” Grossman says. “Increased mindfulness in daily life may also contribute to a more realistic sense of control, as well as a greater appreciation of positive experiences that continue to be part of life.”

Only 5% of participants in the meditation class dropped out during the study, compared to 9% of participants in the usual care group. Those in the meditation group showed improvement in nearly every measure of fatigue, depression, and quality of life issues. Those who received standard medical care showed declines in such life quality measurements.

At the start of the study, about 65% of participants in the meditation group had serious levels of depression, fatigue, or anxiety, but meditation training reduced that by a third at the end of training, and the positive effects were still evident six months later, according to the study.

The authors say it’s unclear whether mindfulness meditation helps because it increases the sense of control of patients or increases their tolerance, acceptance, and courage to deal with the effects of the disease.

The study is published in the Sept. 28 issue of Neurology. An accompanying editorial concludes that because there was no active control group of patients using a different type of intervention, it’s unclear that the apparent good results were specifically due to training in the meditation techniques.

Grossman and some fellow researchers report having received fees from several foundations that are studying the disease as well as from pharmaceutical companies.

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