Dalia Isicoff knows pain. A lifelong sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis, she has had seven hip replacement surgeries.
Since leaving the hospital in February following her latest operation, however, she hasn’t taken any painkillers. Not because the pain isn’t there — it is. But Isicoff, 52, said she has learned to accept the pain, the disease, and herself, thanks to meditation.
“When you have an illness like this, what one tends to do is say, ’Oh, my God! Here we go again, this is going to render me disabled, I’m going to wind up in a wheelchair!’ and you rush to the medicine cabinet,” she said. “This has allowed me to have the patience to deal with these flare-ups and become relaxed enough so the need for pain medication is almost not there.”
The 52-year-old Clarksville resident said meditation has made her symptoms less severe, helping relieve stress that she said made the condition worse.
“With this type of approach, you learn to acknowledge you have pain and, by realizing it and by being in this relaxed state, the pain is less,” she said.
Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore are studying others like Isicoff to see if meditation helps sufferers of the autoimmune disorder, which affects about 2.1 million Americans, mostly women. Those with the disease often have general fatigue, soreness, stiffness and aches at first. Joints may swell and become damaged over time.
'Mindfulness' technique counters stress
Groups of rheumatoid arthritis patients are being trained in “mindfulness,” a form of stress reduction meditation developed 30 years ago at the University of Massachusetts. Their progress is being compared to patients not in the program.
Mindfulness is similar to many meditation techniques. Participants are taught to focus on breathing to quiet the mind and become aware of the moment.
The method has been used successfully to help patients with chronic pain from a variety of conditions, but this marks the first time it is being studied to see if it can help the physical and psychological symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis patients, said Lisa Pradhan, one of the study leaders for the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine.
Evidence suggests flare-ups of the disease are associated with stress, she said.
Thirty-six patients took an eight-week course that started in March and will be given their third and final evaluation later this month. Participants are being sought for a second group of a similar size, which will take the course beginning later this month and be tracked for six months.
Results from the first group are not available yet, but “the people who have come through the study have been very pleased to have been involved with it,” Pradhan said.
Trish Magyari, director of the mindfulness program, said participants are taught to “quiet the mind and feel more connected to your body.”
Isicoff said she tries to meditate in the morning and at night, although mindfulness can be as simple as being aware of feeling the wind on your skin. Such a simple process, however, can be difficult to put into practice, she said.
“Most of us have this crazy internal dialogue,” she said. “For me, it was difficult to say, ’I want to relax’ and, ’I don’t want to think.’ You learn to be an observer of the thought. It’s sort of best to acknowledge it: ’Oh, there you are,’ there’s a judgment, there’s an angry thought, and the moment you acknowledge them, they go away.”
Eventually, she said she learned to be patient — with herself and the situation.
“Yes, I have the arthritis and the suffering, but it doesn’t have to be so negative, so devastating, focusing on that thing day in and day out and not knowing, not believing that it can get better,” Isicoff said.
“You learn to cultivate other areas of your life that are there, that are untapped. When someone is in that frame of mind you can handle anything, you can be more compassionate. You don’t put yourself down so much, you don’t have to struggle with yourself trying to be perfect.”