TUESDAY, Sept. 28 (HealthDay News) -- A new Swiss study reports that a form of meditation known as mindfulness may help patients with multiple sclerosis.

Patients with MS -- a nervous system disease that typically surfaces in early adulthood and can cause muscle weakness, coordination/balance problems and thinking and memory problems, among other symptoms -- often suffer from depression and anxiety.

The study compared multiple sclerosis patients who meditated to MS patients who didn't. Dr. Moses Rodriguez, a professor of neurology and immunology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who's familiar with the study's findings, said meditation is safe and cheaper than the drugs that MS patients take.

"Patients should try it and see if it is helpful for them," Rodriguez added.

Previous research has suggested that half of MS patients suffer from depression during their lives and that anxiety disorders affect one in four. About two-thirds say they feel fatigued, with up to 50 percent saying fatigue is their most disabling symptom.

Researchers at University Hospital Basel randomly assigned 150 patients to either take part in an eight-week meditation program based on "mindfulness" or receive regular medical care. The study defined the meditation, which included yoga, as "nonjudgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experience."

The participants in the mindfulness meditation program reported lower levels of fatigue and depression for up to six months than those receiving standard care. And the meditation participants had better quality of life, according to the study findings, published in the Sept. 28 issue of the journal Neurology.

Those in the meditation program, in fact, improved in almost all the measures of fatigue, depression, anxiety and quality of life, while those who received usual medical care declined slightly on most of the measures. For instance, those who took mindfulness training saw their depressive symptoms drop by more than 30 percent than those study participants who took no training.

"The patients responded very positively to the program," said study author Paul Grossman. "There was a very small number of patients that did not complete the course (5 percent), and the attendance rate was extremely high: On average over 90 percent of all sessions were attended, although many patients traveled several hours to attend the weekly sessions and people with MS often have difficulties walking and other symptoms that make travel difficult."

"Also, patients reported a high degree of satisfaction in meeting personal goals that were individually stated before the intervention started," Grossman added.

In an accompanying commentary in the journal, two physicians from the Cleveland Clinic noted that the findings of the study, which they called "solidly designed," were limited because the researchers didn't compare meditation to another form of extra treatment. That makes it difficult to understand if meditation is uniquely beneficial, they wrote.

But neurologist Dr. Jinny Tavee, one of the commentary authors, said she has seen positive effects of mindfulness in her own practice. The problem with medications, she said, is that patients are told, " 'Here are some drugs that make you sad, tired and depressed, but nothing will effectively take away your disease.' They're left with no effective treatments."

Enter mindfulness meditation. "You learn to objectify what you're feeling, be it pain or anxiety or depression, and see it as a separate entity that's not part of yourself. It helps you let it go," said Tavee. "You're getting to the heart of the symptom rather than just covering it as you do with medications."

Tavee said she sometimes sees furrowed eyebrows when skeptical patients hear about this approach. "But the thing is that this is free," she said. "You can learn how to do it by yourself. There's no side effects, and if it doesn't work for you, you've lost nothing. It's one of those things that can help and won't hurt."

More information

For more about multiple sclerosis, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.