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Positive thinking: the latest weapon in the fight against arthritic pain

Regular readers of Riskfactorphobes Anonymous know only too well how enthusiastic I can get on the subject of positive thinking. Where health is concerned – let alone anything else in life – it has been shown to have a range of benefits, including everything from living longer to lower levels of depression and distress, and even improved resistance to colds.

So when a new study on the subject is published, you can bet I’m going to be interested.

The latest example is a study by University of Sydney researchers published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. And the health issue involved on this particular occasion is rheumatoid arthritis.

So let me explain. The researchers took 104 people with rheumatoid arthritis – a subject I know a little about, owing to the work I do for an inspirational charity called The Arthritic Association – and gave them cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which combines both cognitive therapy and behavioural therapy. What the researchers wanted to find out was which of the two elements of CBT is the most effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis (ie. cognitive or behavioural therapy).

What many people may not realise, however, is that CBT and other types of psychotherapy treatments have already been shown in research as beneficial in treating certain physical heath conditions. What it does is help you overcome any negative thoughts you have and changes your attitude to a more positive one – which, surprise surprise, seems to help people cope with their symptoms, including pain.

So yes, it’s not exactly a new idea. After all positive thinking is like many other things that you know you should do because they make perfect sense – such as flossing your teeth every night instead of once in a blue moon, or taking your make-up off before you go to bed without fail, no matter how tired you are, or being a really responsible adult and taking out life insurance. However, when you’re in the grips of pain, it’s not always that simple (try thinking positive next time you have a migraine, pull a muscle or get toothache and you’ll see what I mean). And that’s why people who experience chronic pain need the help of a trained therapist.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects almost 400,000 people in the UK, with three times more women affected than men. Often more severe than osteoarthritis (which affects an estimated 8.5 million in this country), rheumatoid arthritis is a so-called autoimmune disease because it involves your own immune system attacking your tissues – in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the cells and tissues of the joints, which leads to inflammation and pain. As you might imagine, it can be extremely debilitating. So if you had rheumatoid arthritis, and you were told a psychological therapy such as CBT could ease your pain, wouldn’t you want to try it?

Clare Jacklin, an expert from the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, has been quoted as saying that there is existing and emerging evidence suggesting psychological interventions such as CBT could play an important role in patient care. Even UK’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) sort of recommends it when it says rheumatoid arthritis patients should have access to psychological interventions such as cognitive coping skills if they are having difficulties (and surely there can’t be many people with rheumatoid arthritis who aren’t). The problem, says Clare, is that so few people with rheumatoid arthritis are actually offered access to psychological interventions of any kind.

By the way, in case you were wondering, the outcome of the study was that cognitive therapy on its own proved an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, and that behavioural therapy isn’t really needed.

But that’s not the point – at least not to me.

Here’s what I think the point is. Why do so many people have no other option than relying on what, let’s face it, are some fairly serious drugs – which probably cost the NHS a tidy sum too – when they could get drug-free relief from symptoms such as pain just by learning to change their view of their condition or situation, so they see it in a more positive light?

It may be an oversimplification of the case (though perhaps not as much a simplification as the Daily Mail’s headline: ‘Beating arthritis is all in your head‘). But essentially, isn’t it what it boils down to?

And perhaps here’s the answer. In these cash-strapped times, even fairly expensive drugs are most likely cheaper – or at least easier to dispense and manage,  not to mention quicker to take effect – than shelling out for therapies such as counselling and CBT.

While you ponder that idea, just keep smiling (you never know, it could help keep you healthy).

Posted in General health, Mind/body, Wellbeing, psychology.

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