Fibromyalgia and Meditation
Soon after becoming a physician and rheumatologist in 1983, I developed an interest in many of the different traditional mind-body healing practices such as qigong, tai chi, yoga, breathing techniques, hypnosis, and meditation. Initially, this personal inquiry was separate from my professional work. However, you cannot completely separate your personal life from your professional work, and gradually the nature of my work developed a more holistic orientation. This approach seemed to resonate especially with people who had painful and often difficult-to-categorize conditions such as fibromyalgia.
For the last 20 years, I have incorporated meditation as a core aspect of my management of fibromyalgia. This used to be an unusual recommendation but is now widely accepted on scientific and medical grounds.
Recently I was conducting a meditation evening and a woman in her 50s approached me, reminding me that five years earlier she had consulted me about her fibromyalgia. She told me that, following my advice, she had learned to meditate; and after beginning a regular practice, her symptoms of pain and fatigue abated.
I have heard this story many times before, and in the last two decades medical science has come closer to understanding how meditation can be of benefit for individuals with fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia and Neuroscience
Individuals with fibromyalgia experience pain differently and have lower pain thresholds than those without the condition. The understanding of how this occurs has undergone a rapid change in recent years. Just a decade ago, fibromyalgia was thought to be due to painful muscles and soft tissues. Now it is understood to be due to an imbalance in both brain hormones and the processing of pain signals.
Meditation is thought to influence these abnormal neurological pathways.
What, then, is meditation?
There are many different styles and methods of meditation, but in essence it is the art of letting the mind become still and anchored in the present moment. Stillness leads to relaxation and peace, and it is peace of mind that generates the health benefits. I think of meditation as the process of uncovering the stillness that is always present within each of us.
To understand how meditation can be of benefit in fibromyalgia I would like to introduce you to two relatively new concepts: epigenetics and neuroplasticity.
Epigenetics and Meditation
Epigenetics is a word that means “above the genes." Many illnesses, including fibromyalgia, have a genetic predisposition. This means that individuals with a particular genetic make-up are at a greater risk than the general population of developing fibromyalgia. In general, for conditions where there is a known genetic risk, lifestyle and environmental factors can both positively and negatively impact on both the development and progress of these conditions.
The science of epigenetics has demonstrated that environmental factors and lifestyle changes have a profound effect on the emergence or suppression of predisposed illnesses such as fibromyalgia. We now know that genes are not autocratic and we are not "bystanders and victims" of our genes. How we live our lives does make a difference. It is also well known that good nutrition and exercise are among the many important environmental stimuli for healthy living and exert an epigenetic influence. What is less well known is that it is our thoughts and feelings, and hence our perception of life events, that have a most profound and possibly dominant influence on gene expression. This is where meditation exerts its influence.
A regular meditation practice can produce a beneficial shift in the way we think, feel, and respond to everyday life events. Hence it is a powerful and positive epigenetic influence.
Neuroplasticity and Meditation
“Neuro" means neurons or brain nerve cells and “plasticity” means plastic or changeable. Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function in response to how we think and what we do in our daily life. Even into old age, the brain can change and be remodeled. If we change what we do and how we think, the structure of the brain responds accordingly, and new patterns of thinking and functioning occur.
Studies over the last 10 years have demonstrated that a regular meditation practice positively changes the way the brain is structured and how it functions. A substantial paradigm shift is now under way: Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge has in fact stated “that neuroplasticity is one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century."
Furthermore, American professor of affective neuroscience Richard Davidson states:
"What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before. Their mental practice has an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice enhances performance." It demonstrates, he said, that the brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.
The clinical effects of meditation are well documented and include reduced pain, depression, anxiety, and stress as well as positively enhancing mood states and quality of sleep. Neuroscience has now confirmed what has been know by practitioners for some time: that for fibromyalgia, meditation is good medicine.
Australian rheumatologist Dr Daniel Lewis is author of the DVD, "Living Well With Fibromyalgia: Finding Your Balance" and the "My Health Organiser," which is a personal health recording and communication system, as well as a free e-newsletter for individuals with FM, which can be accessed here.