If you're in pain, you may be able to harness your thoughts to help fight it. Skeptical? Studies suggest these pain relief tools can work.
"Individuals with rheumatoid arthritis can learn mind-body techniques to assist the body and mind in relaxing," says Janice M. Singles, Psy.D., of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. "This generally reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body, allowing the immune system to be better able to fight off illness."
Some techniques work for short term (or acute) pain, others for chronic pain. Either way, here are 12 methods to try.
1. Food fantasies
Thinking about food — whether it's warm, gooey chocolate brownies or a juicy roast beef meal — has been shown to help alleviate pain from menstrual cramps, migraines, and more.
A study conducted by University of Wisconsin researchers found that fantasizing about a favorite food took away some of the pain associated with plunging a hand in icy water (a pretty painful process used in research). Chocolate was the favorite food fantasy, preferred by 32% of participants in the study, followed by a roast dinner (31%), pasta (14%), pizza (14%), and fruit (4%).
Meditation may be one of the most powerful tonics for pain. One 2011 study found that mindfulness meditation, which focuses on the breath, reduced pain intensity anywhere from 11% to 70% and pain unpleasantness from 20% to 93% in people who had a heat probe applied to their calves. And, these study participants received only 80 minutes of training — other studies indicate that the more meditation hours the better when it comes to subverting pain. Researchers are now pinpointing specific regions of the brain that are responsible for the effect.
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3. Controlled breathing
You don't have to be an expert meditator to reap the benefits of breathing. Practicing deep, diaphragmatic breathing (that's breathing from the belly rather than shallow inhaling and exhaling from the chest) can be very helpful, says Singles, who is a distinguished psychologist in orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin.
"This helps harness the parasympathetic nervous system — the quieting response — as opposed to the symptoms of arousal that happen with the pain signals themselves," she explains. Women have been using the breathing techniques of Lamaze to help manage childbirth pain for decades.
Pain is actually a survival mechanism designed to get our attention, but when pain is chronic, it can become more of an emotional issue, says Singles. "It keeps getting in your face and demanding attention," she says.
Focusing elsewhere means the pain isn't hogging all your attention. This could simply be focusing on other parts of the body one at a time to induce progressive relaxation or another activity such as reading or watching a movie.
"Positive distractions are very helpful because the more you focus on pain, the worse you're going to feel," she says.
5. Saying a mantra
Repeating a mantra — usually a sound, word, phrase, or a prayer — is a common practice in many religions and it can relieve pain as well. As little as 30 seconds of using a mantra can dampen unpleasant sensations, says Ellen Slawsby, PhD, director of Pain Services at the Benson Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Slawsby recommends a picking neutral or positive word or phrase rather than a sound.
"That's using something inborn, an internal mechanisms to elicit your own endorphins or endogenous morphine," she says.
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If you visualize your pain as a throbbing, red mass, try to slowly shrink it or make it pink and soft. Or, imagine yourself on the beach or seeing your worries melt away. "The key is knowing what kinds of things are relaxing for you and envisioning that can be helpful," says Slawsby. "Visualization can be great for arthritis patients to ease joint pain."
You can imagine you're in a warm bath with hands floating on the water. "Go through the whole imagery of going into the tub, your toes, ankles, knees, hip joint, lower back, middle back, shoulders," she says. "Imagine the joints being warm and relaxed without the pressure of the regular planetary pull because you're in the water. It gives you a buoyancy."
7. Activating pressure points
Also known as self massage, applying pressure to areas that hurt, especially if it's a tension headache or muscle pain, can be very beneficial, says Slawsby. It's not clear why it works but it does.
Some people think that soothing messages from the massage counteract pain messages. Or it could be that the pressure reduces muscle tension, which is the culprit behind many different types of pain. If touch worsens the pain, though, don't continue with the massage, Slawsby cautions.
8. Positive thinking
Not surprisingly, patients who suffer unrelenting pain can tend to have repetitive, negative thoughts, but these can serve to actually increase the pain. Try to switch to more positive thoughts and, in particular, avoid catastrophizing or imagining the worst.
"Somebody's thinking is very powerful and very important to the management of pain," says Singles. One study found that cognitive behavioral therapy — which focuses on changing thought patterns — combined with a self-help manual provided relief to patients with unexplained pain, weakness, and dizziness.
9. Listening to music
Music can provide a welcome distraction, but also offers so much more. One study, which looked at rheumatoid arthritis patients and others suffering from chronic pain, found that listening to music for one hour over one week subdued pain, depression, and disability while increasing feelings of power.
Multiple other studies have found a powerful effect of music on pain in many kinds of groups, including hospitalized patients. The effect may be stronger in people who also have anxiety.
Getting your thoughts and feelings on paper has been shown to relieve pain in many different populations. It can even enhance immune function. James W. Pennebaker, PhD, a leading researcher in the field, recommends writing before bed for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least three or four days.
Some possible topics: Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much, something you've been avoiding, or something you think is affecting your life in an unhealthy way.
11. Tapping into your creativity
Art therapy is gaining more credibility in medical settings, with some hospitals having dedicated therapy — often geared to children. But, the technique works in adults as well, with one study reporting that one hour of art therapy relieved physical and psychological symptoms in people living with HIV/AIDS.
The same group of researchers earlier found that playing with clay, glitter glue, yarn, beads, colored pencils, and an array of other art supplies relieved symptoms of pain and anxiety in cancer patients.
The adage, "laughter is the best medicine" is no joke. A pilot study conducted at UCLA found that children and adolescents who watched humorous videos while their hands were soaking in frigid water were better able to tolerate the pain.
Another study attributed the effects of laughter on the release of endorphins, nature's own analgesic. Even just smiling can change your mood from bad to good and that may help make pain more bearable.
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