Monday 28 January 2019

"A 4-Day Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Intervention Program for CFS/ME" but...

I did um-and-ah about whether I should blog about the findings reported by Bjarte Stubhaug and colleagues [1] observing that "a brief, concentrated treatment program for CFS/ME might be highly beneficial."

The reasoning behind my reticence was primarily to do with the study design whereby "a 4-day group intervention program, comprised by education, cognitive group therapy sessions, mindfulness sessions, physical activity and writing sessions, within a context of cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, acceptance and commitment model" was delivered to over 300 people diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalopathy (CFS/ME) and self-report results plotted "1 week before and 1 week after the intervention program, and at 3 months and 1 year after the intervention" without any control group or any kind of blinding. Even the researchers themselves wrote that their study design make "conclusion of the actual effect of the treatment program [in part or whole] and its impact on the clinical course through the follow-up period difficult." But, here I am...

As you can see from the picture accompanying this post, others are also just a little bit critical of the Stubhaug paper and findings. Although I can't speak for anyone else, I imagine some of the 'criticism' of the study and results rightly follows on from the methodology employed by the authors. I did also wonder if some feeling might also be there because of the subject matter, and specifically, the continuing idea in some quarters that the application of the biopsychosocial (BPS) model to CFS/ME should carry weight. To quote from the authors: "The therapeutic rationale behind the program was to increase the medical knowledge and interpretation of bodily distress, challenge and modify dysfunctional illness perceptions as well as illness behavior, and through acceptance and commitment strategies contribute to behavioral change and clinical improvement." Sounds about as BPS as you can get I reckon.

Focusing for now on the methodological and related side of the Stubhaug paper, the starting point for the study was the authors' observation that: "The most promising treatment so far seem to be cognitive-behavioral treatment programs... and graded exercise." Just before anyone gets angry about this, authors do also highlight how "the effectiveness of interventions and robustness of findings are continuously being questioned" in this area. Yes, yes they are being questioned (see here and see here for examples) and by lots and lots of different people. Nonetheless, researchers decided to test whether their 4-day program, encompassing quite a few elements, might impact on some of the signs and symptoms of CFS/ME in their cohort. Said program included education: an "introduction to stress medicine with focus on physiological and psychological stress", cognitive group therapy, mindfulness and writing experience ("patients were instructed to write for 15 min about positive experiences and emotions"). They also talk about the use of "daily walking sessions of 60–90 min, in low to moderate pace" which, considering other research (see here), sounds pretty 'full on' to me, in light of some of principal issues that define CFS/ME (see here).

Relying on self-report measures such as the Chalder Fatigue Scale and the Short Form Health Survey-36 (SF-36), researchers reported their results as per the timescales already mentioned. The picture that emerged was a fairly positive one as various statistically significant group changes (improvements) were noted across the testing sessions, even when taking into account different ways of diagnosing CFS and across the various instruments used. Most participants also said that they were pretty satisfied with the intervention program and the service they received. In short, the study met it's aims quite successfully.

But... not to pour cold water on the findings, one cannot forget about the 'open study' shortcomings of the study design. So on top of what has already been mentioned: "Many patients with CFS/ME tend to be critical to biopsychosocial interventions, and possibly most of these patients did not accept referral to the clinic, contributing to the possible selection bias." I'd say that this was another quite important *issue* that faced the Stubhaug study. The authors go on to note that their results "clearly represent a CFS population, albeit not representing the total body of CFS/ME patients" so perhaps clarifying the caution needed in this area of science specifically around any sweeping generalisations. And as an example: "At 1 year follow-up, half of the patients completing assessments (56%) still report levels of fatigue representing substantial fatigue." Such an intervention is therefore no panacea for CFS/ME.

What else? Well, the continued focus on subjective questionnaires over and above more objective measures is also apparent in the Stubhaug findings (see here). As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, it's perfectly acceptable to ask patients how they are feeling and about related issues like quality of life for example (see here). But when it comes to a condition or set of conditions like ME/CFS defined by fatigue and other symptoms that very much impact on core issues such as activity, it strikes me that one should really include an objective measure of activity if one wants to study it in its entirety. So yes, actigraphy would have been a good feature to see in this study (with before and after results). Even a pedometer costing a few quid, used a few times a week over a number of different weeks would be something at least. And once again, how about also including some biological parameters into such studies too? Y'know, just on the off-chance that things like mindfulness, minus any grand sweeping claims, for example, could have possible biological effects too [2]?


[1] Stubhaug B. et al. A 4-Day Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Intervention Program for CFS/ME. An Open Study, With 1-Year Follow-Up. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:720.

[2] Hoge EA. et al. The effect of mindfulness meditation training on biological acute stress responses in generalized anxiety disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2018 Apr;262:328-332.



  1. This is not a study on ME. Stubhaug et al have used the Oxford diagnostic criteria 😅
    These patients could be depressed, burned out or fatigued. Walking for 60-90 min daily is not something someone with ME could do, not even those who are mildly affected.

  2. 💕🙏🏽💕


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