A new study suggests that mindfulness meditation may help lower eye pressure in glaucoma patients and improve quality of life by lowering stress hormones. Eye pressure—also called intraocular pressure or IOP—is a measurement of the fluid pressure inside the eye. Patients with glaucoma have numerous issues which may cause optic nerve damage, including increased eye pressure. This damage may permanently reduce vision. If glaucoma is not treated, it can lead to total blindness Glaucoma affects 65 million people worldwide, and it’s estimated that 10 percent of them are blind.
“This study suggests the possibility that complementary medical strategies like mindfulness meditation may play a role in helping patients cope with their disease and may actually improve outcomes,” the researchers report in the Journal of Glaucoma. The authors say meditation may be a useful complement to current glaucoma treatments such as eye drops, laser therapy or surgery.
The findings are intriguing, and provide support for similar results published in prior studies, according to J. Kevin McKinney, MD, an ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist at Eye Health Northwest in Portland, Ore.
These earlier small studies suggested that psychological stress can increase eye pressure and that relaxation techniques might lower it. The newer study was a larger trial that divided participants by chance into separate groups that compared different treatments. But the study only lasted for 21 days, Dr. McKinney noted.
“I would want to see whether the same effect could be maintained over a longer period of time,” he said. The study did not assess whether mindfulness meditation had an effect on the progression of the patients’ glaucoma. “With our current level of understanding, I would not recommend using meditation as a substitute for current glaucoma treatment. But it might be a very useful addition.”
The new study included 90 patients with primary open-angle glaucoma, the most common form of the disease. One group of patients practiced mindfulness-based meditation, which involves being attentive to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way with an awareness of breathing. That group had a daily session for 21 days for 60 minutes under the supervision of a certified meditation teacher. The other group did not meditate. Both groups continued to take eye drops to lower their IOP.
Patients were monitored for IOP, quality of life and stress-related hormones and chemicals. At the end of three weeks, the meditators had significantly lowered IOP compared with those who did not meditate. The study found 75 percent of the patients who practiced meditation had a more-than 25 percent drop in eye pressure. Patients who participated in meditation also had a significant reduction in stress-related chemicals and reported a significantly improved quality of life after three weeks compared with those who did not meditate. There was no statistically significant change in IOP, quality of life or stress-related chemicals in the group that did not meditate.
It’s not known how stress is related to IOP, Dr. McKinney said. “It may be that hormones and chemicals that increase in the body when a person is stressed—called stress mediators—also work on receptors in the eye. When a person is stressed, these mediators may affect the eye in a way that increases IOP,” he said.
Dr. McKinney noted that many ophthalmologists think that stress reduction is useful for glaucoma management. “In my practice, I see that glaucoma patients who manage stress better tend to have better outcomes. But the idea that stress reduction lowers IOP hasn’t been validated in a study of this size before,” he said.
Dr. McKinney said based on the study’s findings, he will add meditation to the list of strategies he recommends to patients to reduce stress, including regular exercise, healthy sleep habits and other forms of mindfulness-based stress reduction.
“Techniques to reduce stress and increase mindfulness meditation would be welcome additions to an ophthalmologist’s tool kit. Afterall, the visual system is critical to a patient’s overall quality of life and we are constantly seeking new therapies to reduce the potentially devastating effects of uncontrolled and progressive glaucoma,” says Ravi D Goel, MD, an ophthalmologist and cataract surgeon in Cherry Hill, NJ.